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Richard II is a disembodied torso when first spotted at the Lansburgh Theatre, and he scarcely looks bigger when the lights reveal the rest of him.
As grippingly embodied by Wallace Acton, the Bard’s least prepossessing king is a defenseless, boyish figure, slight to the point of delicacy but with grand ideas about his place in the world. This is a Richard who tries to wield power gently, who is brought low more by that impulse than by the carelessness with which most productions saddle him.
Confronted by feuding noblemen who insist they’d rather die than let their honor be stained, he urges tolerance, forbearance, and humility. And when his pleas fall on deaf ears, he sends the men off into banishment rather than letting them kill each other. It’s a kind solution in an unkind age, and it dooms Richard, because one of those noblemenHenry Bolingbroke (Andrew Long)will return with an army to take away his crown.
None of which registers with this king, who believes he rules by divine right. Peremptory and supercilious, he’s surrounded by fey young men who so eagerly cater to his every whim (the staging suggests that Richard’s homosexuality emboldened his enemies) that he hardly knows what to do when confronted by actual opposition. Late in the play, when he enters a room and no one falls on bended knee, he looks crestfallen, notes his displeasure, then shrugs helplessly. This is not the kind of guy who can carry off a grand gesture, and somehow, that inability ennobles him, suggesting that he’s regal at heart, if not in outward appearance. Dwarfed by his crown and ermine collar, he’s still more impressive than the folks around him.
For a while on opening night, remembering the disastrous Broadway leap that TV’s Kelsey Grammer took at Macbeth earlier this year, I thought Acton might be playing Richard as a sort of distant cousin to Frasier’s brother, Niles. There’s definitely something of the clueless milquetoast to his kingly ditherings. But as the evening progresses, Acton brings more and more backbone to Richard, rising to soliloquies with such fervor and conviction that when he’s finally attacked in his jail cell, it’s not really a surprise to see this delicate man in satin pajamas dispatch a couple of assassins before getting overpowered himself.
Gerald Freedman’s staging doesn’t always hang together, but virtually every element gives the impression of having been carefully considered, from the billiards playing that establishes the casually chummy mood at court to the grave-sized patch of dried earth (“this sceptered isle…this blessed plot…this England”) that designer John Ezell centers on a glossily polished stage. Lawrence Casey’s crisply ceremonial costumes firmly position the play in the early 20th century (Acton’s wardrobe is modeled on that of that other abdicator, Edward VIII) while offering witty commentary on the military mindset of the folks who torment Richard.
Secondary performances are invariably intelligent, and sometimes more than thatTed van Griethuysen’s eloquent John of Gaunt, David Sabin’s tormented Duke of York, and Tana Hicken’s death- and monarch-defying mother-to-end-all-mothers. Still, what you’ll carry away from the production is its surprising, entertaining, and thoroughly commanding central performance.
Never mind Richard. All hail Wallace Acton….Long may he reign.
Shakespeare pretty much gets the heave-ho in Play On!, a scattered but upbeat new musical at Arena Stage that uses a few plot elements from Twelfth Night as a pretext to sing the hell out of 22 Duke Ellington tunes. As pretexts go, this one’s flimsy, but for fans of the music, it’ll suffice.
In relocating the story to ’40s Harlem, Cheryl L. West, working from a concept by director Sheldon Epps (the man behind last season’s Blue), jettisons most of what makes Twelfth Night interesting. Viola no longer has a twin brother to cause comic confusion when she disguises herself. Nor does she really have a persuasive reason to do so. Duke Orsinonow just Duke (as in Ellington)no longer questions his sexuality when he finds himself falling for Viola in drag. Olivia, the original object of the Duke’s affections, is no longer a haughty heiressshe’s a haughty showgirl. And the cruel tormenting of the priggish servant Malvolio no longer has any resonance whatever.
Still, the roof gets raised: “Mood Indigo,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” “Solitude,” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” get crooned, belted, and roared by performers who know how to sell a lyric. The colors are fruity, the decidedly unpoetical dialogue (“You look like you suck on sorrow and swallow all the seeds”) is reasonably snappy, and if the choreography (by Mercedes Ellington, Duke’s granddaughter) is occasionally clunky, it also has bounce.
As he proved in Blue, Epps knows how to keep things hopping, but he hasn’t a clue as to how to create believable characters. The songs work in the contexts he’s given themthe Duke, for instance, pines away for his girlfriend with “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good”but with protagonists so pliable and inconsistent that the creators can have them do or say pretty much anything that’s convenient for a joke, there’s hardly a nonmusical moment that rings true. Using the book as a mere clothesline to hang songs on isn’t without precedent, of course. In the ’30s and ’40sthe period in which Play On! is setno one thought musical librettos worth worrying about. But those flimsy books are precisely why those shows can’t be produced any more, even when they’re peppered with pop standards. Today’s audiences require at least a semblance of plot logic, and Epps and West have so truncated Twelfth Night’s story that they can’t always provide it.
The biggest of many missteps occurs in the second act, when Play On!’s uproariously priggish Malvolio stand-in (Richard Allen) casts off his inhibitions and brings down the house in a loose-limbed dance number that should, by rights, make his showgirl lady love swoon with admiration. She promptly rejects himwhich allows him to sing a reprise of “I Got It Bad…” but makes no dramatic sense at all. Way too much of the rest of the show feels similarly disjointed.
Fortunately, the cast handles the musical numbers brightly enough to make the evening’s narrative blunders worth tolerating. The men are especially fine, with Allen a splendid comic lead, David Jennings bringing a reedy tenor and considerable gravitas to the Duke’s love songs, and Clinton Derricks-Carroll and Wayne W. Pretlow gleefully stopping the show with a hilariously inebriated “Rocks in My Bed.”
On the distaff side, Nikki Crawford oozes sex appeal as a showgirl who appears to have been poured into every one of her gowns. And when the director isn’t pushing Alexandra Foucard to oversell the unsubtle cross-dressing schtick he’s devised for her, she’s slyly comic as Vy-Man (the Viola character). Marianna Elliott’s eye-popping costumes (for Allen’s big number she’s fashioned the zootiest yellow suit imaginable) and Michael Gilliam’s kaleidoscopic lighting add sizzle. CP