Sometimes presenting plays in juxtaposition can achieve its own artistic effect, especially when they sharply contrast. That is the case in the electric bundling of Shakespeare in Love with Richard II, now running in rotating repertoire at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival. Our greatest poet is dynamically present, and yet, more elusive than ever.
In adapting the 1998 Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall keeps most of the movie's inside jokes and hews to the core story. Young Shakespeare struggles with writer's block. He finds his muse and true love in Viola De Lesseps (glamorous Mairin Lee), an aristocrat who loves theater and flees an arranged marriage with hateful Lord Wessex (Christian Coulson, who played Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
Director Patrick Mulcahy (also producing artistic director at PSF) pulls out all the stops. Thanks to Daniel Conway, the set design recreates an Elizabethan theater. With Paddy Cunneen's score in hand, music director Liz Filios uses live musicians and period instruments. Lisa Zinni's costumes fill the stage with swirling color. Mulcahy even trots a little doggy on stage (the queen likes doggies).
Luigi Sottile is a strong-voiced Shakespeare — frustrated, angry, fearful, brave, amorous, sardonic — and you always believe him. But he shares the stage with a wild bunch of characters. Impresario Philip Henslowe (Richard B. Watson) clashes with loan shark Fennyman (Christopher Coucill), while rival entrepreneur Richard Burbage (Christopher Patrick Mullen) and actor Ned Alleyn (Brandon J. Pierce) prance and preen. All manically interact with Will. Yet, this clash of artistic vision, commercial interests, and egos just as easily describes theater today.
The romance of Will and Viola intertwines with Will's play, Romeo and Juliet. As an audience member, it is charming to sit behind a shifting fourth wall, watch a play within a play, and the scenes behind the play. But one reason Romeo and Juliet hits the boards at all is because the bard gets so much help. Kit Marlowe (Justin Adams) contributes plot and poetry, Alleyn comes up with the title, and as a practical matter, Queen Elizabeth herself (imperious Starla Benford) becomes a crafty eleventh-hour supporter.
What a contrast this show makes with grimly compelling Richard II, often running the same day! Here, all gaiety is banished from the kingdom. Ominous chords of sound designer William Neal replace lilting, strolling players. Lighting designer Eric T. Haugen now startles you with violent flashes of light. Olivera Gajic dresses Richard in brilliant, flowing white, but other players are subdued. And Conway's set design is dominated by a huge sun king emblem, looming over a golden throne. (After Richard's martyrdom, the symbol of Divine Right hangs limply from the ceiling, a mass of broken pieces.)
Director Gina Lamparella uses the same actors. Coulson, creates a memorable, ill-fated king. You do not like Richard's callous, supercilious treatment of John of Gaunt (played with injured dignity by Coucill) that sets his downfall in motion. But later he wins your sympathy with his bravery and freedom from bombast in accepting fate.
Too accepting. Why does Richard not fight harder to stay in power, or more largely, what does he truly think about Divine Right? The weaker his grip on power, the more soaring his poetry. His final soliloquy rivals anything in Hamlet, ("I have wasted time and now doth time waste me"), and has come to doubt the medieval metaphysic itself, warding off nihilism with art like an Oscar Wilde Decadent.
Justin Adams plays Bolingbroke perfectly, pitiless in stealing power with practical action while Richard broods. Earlier, Richard scoffs at usurpers. "An anointed king the breath of worldly men cannot depose." But he collapses into self-pity and hastens his downfall by turning himself into an ironist and an actor-poet. Bolingbroke: "Are you content to resign the crown?" Richard: "Ay, no, no, ay, for I must nothing be."
The effect of the two plays together is haunting. Shakespeare in Love is clever and fun-loving, but fictional. We only know the bard through his plays. Yet, his brilliant work is so restless and shape-shifting that no clear idea about the artist emerges. And you come away from the repertoire with an eerie awareness of how little you know about Shakespeare himself.