Review: Richard II by Poor Shadows of Elysium
by Michael Meigs
The Poor Shadows of Elysium is newly established but its principals and associates are well known to the curious collection of Shakespeare enthusiasts in Austin. After appearing in recent years as Oberon, Prospero, Mercutio, and Marcus of Titus Andronicus, Kevin Gates surrendered to the lure of Renaissance drama and enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Texas State. His partner and executive producer Bridget Farias has been running the EmilyAnn Theatre in Wimberley with summer "Shakespeare under the Stars" for young persons and an annual Shakespeare play by adult actors in the fall.
Aaron Black has played Austin stages as Hamlet and as Brutus since his arrival here several years ago. Director Christina Gutierrez had done dramatugy for Austin Shakespeare and others, co-founded the 7 Towers Theatre Company, directed John Ford's Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Cathedral of Junk, and has just turned in her Ph.D. thesis for UT's Program of Performance as Public Practice.
This Richard II is additionally garlanded with Austin acting regulars Suzanne Balling, Travis Bedard, David Boss, Robert Deike and D. Heath Thompson, so if you've seen any Shakespeare at all in this town outside of the 40 acres or other educational confines, you'll probably see some familiar faces on these chilly evenings at Richard Garriott's reduced-scale Elizabethan-style theatre on the north shore of Lake Austin.
The company's title suggests the degree of its devotion to the bard and to the craft. Kevin Gates is an adamant advocate of fidelity to the texts as a way of realizing the intents of the playwrights, so perhaps it's appropriate to search out the phrase, which comes from Act V of Cymbeline, within a deus-ex-machinascene rare for Shakespeare.
In scene 4, Posthumus the condemned protagonist falls asleep, and the ghosts of valiant relatives gather around him for a masque. Jupiter himself descends from the heavens, seated on an eagle, throws a thunderbolt, and rebukes them:
Offend our hearing; hush! How dare you ghosts
Accuse the Thunderer, whose bolt, you know,
Sky-planted, batters all rebelling coasts?
Poor shadows of Elysium, hence, and rest
Upon your never-withering banks of flow’rs.
The Thunderer delivers a book and the awed ghosts deposit it with the sleeping Posthumus before they vanish. He awakes, studies the contents, and cannot decipher the cryptic prophecies:
Tongue and brain not; either both or nothing,
Or senseless speaking, or a speaking such
As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,
The action of my life is like it, which
I’ll keep, if but for sympathy.
The text is the key; the eternal has delivered it to us in writing via the ghosts of our valiant ancestors. We may not understand it, but within it the confusing and tumultuous events of our lives are mysteriously reflected.
Richard II is an appropriate text for Shakespeare text junkies. It's written entirely in verse, with differentiations of tone according to the characters, and it includes famed passages, including the memorable evocation of the homeland, "This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England, . . ." spoken by Bedard as the ailing John of Gaunt.
Better yet, it's a text that's rarely performed, so true believers do the rest of us a service by blowing off the dust and showing it to us. There's no swashbuckling in this story, and in fact King Richard's abrupt cancellation of the duel to the death between Bolingbroke and Mowbry is the event that precipitates actions that will alter the political cosmography. Richard II is a cerebral piece depicting the yielding of the doctrine of the divine right of kings to the choice of monarch through political negotiations and force.
Gates and Black accepted the challenge of learning both roles, those of Richard and his opponent Bolingbroke (who by the end of the evening becomes Henry IV by outmaneuvering the king). Assignment of roles for each evening's performance depends upon the outcome of a coin toss at center stage; as of this writing, Black has been designated as Richard II three times and Gates has won the toss only once. It's a virtuoso turn that stretches not only the principals but also the cast, for rehearsals were structured so that each actor as Richard took choices that affected cast movements and dramatic tropes differently.
The coin toss on opening night gave us Aaron Black as Richard II, and over the course of the evening it seemed that Richard had been written as the more verbal and eloquent of the two. Gates as Bolingbroke, the man of action, clutched his broadsword in many scenes, even when an arm appeared inappropriate. He appeared somewhat taken aback to find that his just demands for return of confiscated lands had somehow shaken Richard's conviction so severely that the king yielded the crown.
I heard indirectly that cast changes late in the rehearsal process had brought the capable David Boss on board and caused some revisions to the performance text. In any case, I found it somewhat disconcerting that Boss played Mowbrey, Bolingbroke's arch enemy, in the run-up to the interrupted duel, and then appeared as Northumberland, Bolingbroke's close confederate, for the rest of the action, with little differentiation between the two characters of opposed allegiance.
Travis Bedard was a fine if not particularly gaunt John of Gaunt, and he stepped into ecclesiastical robes as the bishop of Carlisle, the indignant and ultimately cowed noble supporter of Richard. Stephen Price -- a new face to me -- was particularly notable for his crisp diction and convincing delivery.
Two regrets remain. Although Austin's February - March weather has been relatively benign, the evening chill was a challenge to those of us sitting immobile and uncostumed in the stands. And because of previously scheduled travel out of Austin I didn't have the opportunity of haunting the Curtain Theatre the following weekend -- either to absorb the verse and movements once again or to appreciate the differences when Gates instead of Black starts the evening on the throne.
In fact, the ideal way to experience this Richard II and to appreciate the achievement of the company was by being part of it throughout. And I reproached myself just a bit for not giving into the temptation in late 2012 to step forward and audition at least for one of the spear-carrier roles.
Click to view video of Aaron Black and Kevin Gates discussing the rehearsal process
Click to view the program for Richard II
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by William Shakespeare
Poor Shadows of Elysium
February 09 - March 09, 2013
7400 Coldwater Canyon Dr.
Austin, TX, 78730