- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 18, 2000

An early scene in the Shakespeare Theatre's handsome production of "Richard II" seems positively eerie.

Richard II, played by Wallace Acton, strongly resembles Edward, the Duke of Windsor, while sitting in elegant profile in a posh gentleman's club. He has the same impossibly blond, crisply cut hair; the same movie-star profile; the same tidy body in impeccable tailoring.

Director Gerald Freedman displays a stroke of genius in setting "Richard II" in 1930s England. This was the time of Edward VIII, who abdicated for the woman he loved, of the whole romantic tragedy of a man groomed to be king who gave it all up to marry a terribly chic Baltimore divorcee, and it's permeated by the idea of how a king by birthright lives out the rest of his life without a kingdom to rule.

The Edward and Wallis Simpson love story permeated our thoughts about royalty and made Americans more Anglocentric than ever. We reached a fever pitch in our fascination with the late Princess Diana and her former husband, Prince Charles — royals every bit as fallible as Edward and Wallis but without the nostalgic fairy-tale aura.

They were larger-than-life figures in our imagination, but the reality is markedly different. Last year, an exhibition at the Maryland Historical Society of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's clothes showed not just the painstaking beauty of their custom-made outfits and accouterments, but how small the pair were.

Their size made them seem even more removed from the real world, as exquisite beings meant to be put on display and brought out for special ceremonies. That image haunted me as I watched Mr. Acton's compelling portrayal of Richard II. He has that same neat, boyish frame in splendid suits and the lofty accent and diction. He seems to glide an inch or two off the ground like a hummingbird while the rest of the court seems firmly earthbound. There also is the way his crown fits his head — as if God placed it there.

Mr. Acton's Richard is every inch a king — perhaps not the most effective or canny monarch, but a king by divine right nonetheless. "Richard II" is written entirely in verse, which gives it a peculiar music and heightens the otherworldliness of Richard and his gadfly court.

Richard is surrounded by people who seem to have walked off the stage of Noel Coward's latest sparkling comedy — divine flatterers such as Sir Henry Greene (Eric Martin Brown), Sir John Bushy (Jeffries Thaiss) and Sir John Bagot (Patrick Hallahan), all of whom look as if they were born holding a martini glass.

The queen, Isabel (Jessica Lancaster), quite Wallis Simpsonesque, graces the king's rooms like a work of art. The effect is furthered by John Ezell's magnificent set, two stories of polished wood, a second-level portrait gallery, gilded double staircases and a huge marble floor.

This is how we fantasize that royalty looks and acts. The production emphasizes public artifice and stylized movements. Richard particularly moves in consciously articulated movements as if he is constantly setting a scene. He observes his life the way an actor might. That's not to say Richard is an empty-headed dolt. He is philosophical, articulate and fond of carefully mannered speeches and turns of phrase that foreshadow Oscar Wilde's perfect epigrams and word-craft.

Richard, it is interesting to note, has many glorious speeches, but no soliloquies. He always speaks before an audience.

Richard is a good king, but a failure as a leader. He settles a dispute between the Duke of Norfolk (William Hulings) and Henry Bolingbroke (Andrew Long) by banishing the former for life and the latter for six years.

This makes the kingdom ripe for an uprising, as Henry, a man of action and calculated revenge, begins to gather supporters. As Richard's isolation grows, Henry becomes stronger and stronger until he has wriggled in as Richard's successor. Of course, Richard has to die for this to take place.

After a nearly two-hour first act that has many engrossing moments but tests your ability not to fidget, Richard gives up the throne and is without the trappings of royalty. Even in hobo clothes, he has a natural nobility, which he maintains to the end.

What happens to a king without a kingdom? Richard faces himself first in the mirror and then in a prison cell and not only fails to recognize himself, but does not see anything at all. He seems to grow into himself and become the exquisite boy who never quite grew up, a prince who dreams of realms he never will possess.

In contrast to the dreaminess of Mr. Acton's Richard II, the production features some vividly concrete performances. Mr. Long presents a scathingly authoritative Henry Bolingbroke. He behaves as if he deserves the crown, but it doesn't quite fit him right, and the ermine cloak and scepter look a bit awkward on his body. Ted van Griethuysen, as the king's uncle, gives a deathbed speech from a wheelchair that will rattle your bones with his poetic conviction and plain love of England.

To further the Noel Coward allusion, Mr. Freedman has the cast deliver some lines with an ironically arched brow as if the antics of the court are just too, too much to bear. This adds an unexpected levity to a play that is chock-full of murder, betrayal and assassination. This is seen particularly in a terrifically zestful scene in which the Duke of York (David Sabin) is interrupted in a foot bath to deal with his wildly kvetching wife (Tana Hicken) and their no-goodnik son.

"Richard II" is an acquired taste. Some don't like the rhyming verse, and others feel Shakespeare was more successful in the latter-history plays. But our obsession with private and public behavior in regard to public figures and our lingering love for royalty make "Richard II" especially meaningful.

WHAT: "Richard II"WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NWWHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Dec. 31. No performances Thanksgiving Day or at 2 p.m. Dec. 24 or 7:30 p.m. Dec. 31. Call to find out about additional matinees.TICKETS: $14.25 to $62PHONE: 202/547-1122

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