At the time of this play’s writing in 1595, the events surrounding Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke and the fall of the Divine Right of Kings was as well known as the inner workings of “Brangelina”. Shakespeare’s audience was deeply familiar with this story and its outcome, and while a modern audience might not know the ins and outs and all the players from the start, The Porters of Hellsgate take one of the most difficult of all the Bard’s historical tragedies to open their third season and transform it into an engaging night of theatre.
This is a tragic tale of a King who had the world at his fingertips and through rampant abuse of power and pride, loses everything dear to him. Richard begins the play mediating over a quarrel between Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray over the death of the Duke of Gloucester. After Richard decrees banishment for both men and seizes the lands and money of the recently deceased John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke’s father, all hell breaks loose. Richard wages war in Ireland with this ill begotten money while Bolingbroke returns with the support of an unhappy nation to reclaim what was taken from him as well as Richard’s crown.
Thomas Bigley plays The Divine King with such Herod-like arrogance; it’s no wonder that his own pride and vanity destroys him. Yet Bigley doesn’t play the fall with self-pity or loathing, but rather you can see the weight of his heavy crown and his even heavier choices in his every thought even after he has abdicated the throne to Henry. Two of the most beautiful moments of the play were his – the “The death of kings” moment and his beautiful opening soliloquy in the prison at the start of Act V. Henry Bolingbroke, played by the eternally centered Gus Krieger, is the polar opposite of everything Richard stands for as king. His intellect and political savvy, as well as his ability to relate and speak with those of the middle and lower classes allow him to take the throne. Krieger is genuine and humble, and it’s this down to earth quality that gets the audience on his side from the moment he is banished till the very end of the play. He shows us through the newly crowned Henry IV, that just because one has power ones does not have abuse his power.
Other standout performances included Patrick J. Saxon in the role of Northumberland, who gave the role a brilliant Iago-like charisma one couldn’t help but wonder if Richard’s foretelling of further treason might truly be on the horizon, as well Jennifer Bronstein as Queen Isabel, whose final scene with Richard was truly heartbreaking, and Jamey Hecht as both John of Gaunt and the Bishop of Carlisle, who gave massive depth to both characters. Charles Pasternak, one of Hellsgate’s founding members and current Artistic Director, directs this uphill battle and navigates his cast through the perilous waters of a historical tragedy almost written entirely in verse that reads more like poetry than speech. Yet his cast rarely falters, the core is solid and the young ensemble, who play the vast army of other historical members of Richard and Henry’s courts, all hold their own and keep the story moving, both in the emotional and swift pace sense. Daniel Keck’s scenic design is Shakespearianly simply, serves the play well, and the transition from purple to red foreshadows the coming War of the Roses.
Richard II is rarely produced and has one of the most unusual performance histories of all the plays of the Shakespearean canon. Lucky for you, it is playing in your own backyard right now and you should see it.
Theater: Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center, 11006 Magnolia Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91601
Website: http://whitmorelindleytheatrecenter.com/ or www.myspace.com/theportersofhellsgate
Tickets: (310) 497-2884
Dates: Through May 31, 2009