RICHARD II -- At the Folger through March 25.
The moral issues are so slight in comparison with the political realities of "Richard II" that with the right emphasis, it could seem uncomfortably modern. But the Folger Theater, usually so adept at making Shakespeare startlingly immediate, has clogged its production with theatrical cliches that isolate the few brilliant scenes instead of allowing them to build.
Richard II's crimes are not treated by Shakespeare as being heinous, as Richard III's were to be. Whatever the young king had to do with the death of one of his junior uncles, the crime that rankles most is the modest economic trade-off of leasing out royal farm land to pay military bills. He is an interesting character with a philosophical turn of mind, and his queen, at least, loves him.
But his tactical miscalculations and the fact that he is not a crowd-pleaser, or even a court-pleaser, do him in. Richard's downfall deals a severe blow to the concept of the divine right of kings, in which he has placed his faith. On Richard's terms, a king does not have to be clever or popular; Bolingbroke's triumph as Henry IV, which set the rules for later wars of succession, let alone modern politics, shows that anointment is no excuse for bad politics.
While Michael Tolaydo's Richard cunningly merges the cockiness of his legally unassailable position with his slip into a realism that drives him near mad, Terry Hinz's Bolingbroke is not a man of political charisma. Hinz has done such yeoman service with Shakespearean comic parts at the Folger that he has surely earned the right to a role in which half the lines do not begin with "Marry, sir..." But this is not the role. Bolingbroke needs to be a man with equal command at his period's equivalents of running a political machine and being charming on television.
Other actors who have distinguished themselves in previous productions also seem bewildered by this one. John Neville-Andrews, the marvelously tragi-comic lead in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?," and Glynis Bell, the great commedienne of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," are made to look silly in minor parts. Only Leonardo Cimino, who at first seems to be doing Polonius all over again as John of Gaunt, reaches magniflcence in his death scene. Albert Corbin and Peter Vogt do two good versions of pragmatism.
But the troubles seem more generalized than individual. At the opening performance, the speaking speed was enormous, possibly in an attempt to conceal the constant rhymes, and just about all the major actors stumbled over words at least once. Louis W. Sheeder has them acting out Shakespeare's metaphors with an amazing lack of subtlety: When Richard speaks of his descent from the throne, he is lowered from what looks like window-washer's scaffolding; he and Bolingbroke seesaw during Richard's comparison of their positions to those of empty and full buckets in a well; and when the queen and her ladies eaves-drop on the gardener, they are frozen as if in an amateur tableau of springtime.
One needs a general-purpose set for Shakespeare, but it's hard to imagine why this play is made to take place on a drawbridge. The way people keep rushing on and off of it, all flinging wide their capes in an identical manner, that bridge must be a major thoroughfare, but to what is not clear.