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'Richard II' a timeless story

William Shakespeare’s history play — the first of four in the House of Lancaster grouping — is a tale of power struggles.

It chronicles a pivotal changeover in medieval English history. King Richard II ascends the throne as a child, and proves his less-than-noble character as a spendthrift and lackadaisical leader more concerned with profit than morals. After banishing his cousin Henry Bullingbrook for six years, Richard descends down a tragic path, heralding ever more turmoil in the royal family. 

Led by artistic director Bill Rauch and associate director Dawn Monique Williams, Oregon Shakespeare Festival launches "Richard II," a production that marks the beginning of an important part of OSF’s "canon in a decade."

The show will preview at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, July 7, and 8 p.m. Friday, July 8. It opens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday (time corrected) and will run through Oct. 30 in the Thomas Theatre on the OSF campus, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. Tickets range from $30 to $111 and can be purchased at the OSF box office, online at osfashland.org or by calling 800-219-8161.

Though OSF is no stranger to the history plays, "Richard II" marks the one Rauch has directed. Fourteen actors fill the roles in Rauch’s three-hour production, with some actors absorbing multiple characters. Other characters — some of the red herrings — are eliminated entirely.

Theater-goers may see parallels in this work to the real world, and timing couldn’t have been better to produce the play. OSF has chosen a contemporary British setting in which to ground the play, and current events worldwide and the events of Shakespeare’s work are in continual interplay. The storyline, Williams says, is particularly relevant in today’s political climate, with messages about otherness, leadership, power dynamics and politics.

Voice and text director Rebecca Clark Carey echoes the sentiment, stressing the timeliness of this production.

"I think it’s particular exciting to see this in an election year," she says. "I think going to see this play and seeing a complicated political situation portrayed in a complicated way is just refreshing."

"Richard II" is the only strictly verse play written by Shakespeare. Carey offers that Shakespeare’s poetry is often easier to understand than prose, and the humorous moments spliced into tragic events makes it all the more accessible. The nature of the language — almost entirely in iambic pentameter — translates to a high-energy, urgent artwork on stage. Rather than placing an onus on the audience to comprehend Elizabethan references, Carey says viewers are invited to watch a kind of sparring match between actors.

"It’s thrilling to watch actors at the top of their game engage with language that is so purposefully witty and pun-filled, and competitive and combative," she says. "It becomes like a sporting event."

In an OSF video, Rauch calls the production a "gift both to the actors and to the audience," which will bring back many of the players for the following production of the "Henry IV" plays. Because roles in this set of works carry over from one play to the next, actors might have the chance to build upon the continued story line and inform future performances. 

Williams adds that Rauch’s inclusion of the actors from the inception, even at the script-editing stage, comes through in the investments made by all of the artists in the production. The intent was quality over quantity, she says, to invest more in each individual character and forge a deeper understanding and portrayal of their role rather than go with broad-strokes coverage of a traditional full cast.

OSF veteran Christopher Liam Moore will play King Richard II, his second time in this role. Henry Bullingbrook is played by Jeffrey King, who has performed in other history plays, including "Henry IV: Part One" and "Henry V," and has worked with Moore before.

"The whole company is really so phenomenal," Williams says. "These are actors at the top of their craft, and you almost set them loose in a room and they’re going to make the magic on their own."

For Rauch, this play centers on the idea of family, and the Thomas Theater provides an apt backdrop, affording an intimate experience for the audience and the actors. The relatively small cast also adds to an intimate vibe, playing off the conflict of family and political dynamics.

The characters are brought to life in the OSF production "three dimensionally," Carey says. The set-up of the performance space plays a role in crafting this ambiance. Given a small cast and a small theater, the audience sees the action objectively as well as subjectively, becoming a part of the plot.

"We never talk about how smart actors are," Williams says. Their research of the roles and historical figures is evident. Combining this, "in a room with Bill, who’s so open, has yielded really, really great results."

The all-star cast, the performance space, and the direction set up the conditions for a perfect storm, rendering OSF's "Richard II" a contemporary tale of politics and family told in an intimate way.

"I’ve been thrilled from the moment it was announced," Carey says. "I love this play very deeply. I really believe in this director and this company, and I think it’s going to be a thrilling theater event."

Richard II (Christopher Liam Moore) presides over a dispute between Henry Bullingbrook (Jeffrey King) and Thomas Mowbray (Michael Sharon) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of William Shakespeare's 'Richard II.' OSF / Jenny Graham