Review: ‘Richard II’ from African American Shakespeare Company (*****)

Lijesh Krishnan is thrilling as “Richard II” in African American Shakespeare Company’s astounding production. Photo Credit: Joseph Giammarco.

by Charles Kruger

Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Make no mistake, this “modern verse translation” of Richard II by Naomi Iizuka, commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! project, is Shakespearean to the core. Although it is certainly streamlined and rearranged for clarity, Shakespeare’s poetry survives. The sound and fury of the Bard’s voice is fully present, and you will not detect any distressing anachronisms in the language of this marvelous producdtion.

And marvelous it is! Director L. Peter Callendar has grabbed every tool at his disposal to tell the story: the five actors who play all the characters utilize commedia del arte style masks, circus skills, vaudeville shtick, Shakespearean depth of emotion, all the stops of their voices, and carefully articulated thought to tell the story and the result is riveting.

The tale of Richard’s downfall at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke is as clear as can be, helped by the clever rearrangement of text so that this version opens with Richard already in the Tower awaiting his doom. So we know the ending from the beginning, which allows everything to play out in easily understood fashion.

The five actors, led by Lijesh Krishnan as Richard and Adam Torrian as Bolingbroke, supported by Tiffany Nwogu, Tony Ortega, and Krista Joy Serpa, have polished their act to within an inch of their lives. It is rare indeed to see any American theatre company present work at this degree of perfection—I don’t know how many days or months they were able to rehearse—but they have reached a performance peak comparable to companies who spend years together in workshops. This is the sort of production to which the term “world class” is meant to apply.

In his direction, founder of the African American Shakespeare Company L. Peter Calendar, perpaps the Bay Area’s most accomplished Shakespearean actor, has instilled each of this ensemble with a lifetime of artistic discovery. He seems to have “Peter-ized” these actors, and filled them with all the grace and insight he has learned over his entire career. It is a joy to behold.

Everything possible is at play: the actors don and doff masks, practically sing some of their lines, certainly dance some, and engage in behaviors so unexpected that the audience gasps and laughs with astonishment. At one point, Richard and Bolingbroke literally play a game of “keepaway” with the crown and it is all at once bizarre, screamingly funny, frightening, and entirely human and believable.

And, trust me, in spite of my enthusiasm, I have only begun to scratch the surface in describing the excellence of this Richard.

I’ll finish with a word about the audience: Keep in mind, Shakespeare is hard. Audiences do not always get every detail. And, usually, there are moments when only a few will laugh at a joke, or respond to a subtlety. But at this play, the audience seems to become part of the ensemble. Every nuance was so accessible that the audience, from start to finish, responded as one, laughing and gasping as a single person. There were even repeated moments when the entire audience burst simultaneously into applause at a particularly well-landed speech. Believe me when I tell you, from the perspective of having attended more than 1,000 plays in the past decade, such a thing is as rare as finding diamonds in the gutters of the Tenderloin.

I hope I’ve convinced you to attend. You won’t be sorry.

It has a short run. Don’t miss out.

“Richard II” plays at Marines Memorial Theater in San Francisco through April 24, 2022. For further information and tickets, click here.

Rating: ***** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
____________________________

“Richard II” by William Shakespeare. Modern verse translation by Naomi Iizuka. Director: L. Peter Callender. Set Designer: Jerid Fox. Costume Designer: Corrida Godbold. Lighting Designer: Kevin Myrick. Sound Designer: James Goode. Scenic Designer: Jerid Fox. Mask Designers: Bruce Marrs, Jeff Raz. Props Designer: Dianne Harrison. Fight Director: Dave Meier. Set Construction: The Tabard Theatre Company Shop.

Cast:

Lijesh Krishnan. Tiffany Nwogu. Tona Ortega. Krista Joy Serpa. Adam Torrian.

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