“For heaven’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
– King Richard, Act 3 Scene 2
Tacoma has a new theatrical company in its midst. Led by Kathryn Philbrook, Screaming Butterflies Productions aims to produce multifaceted theatrical works that reflect the many communities that make up Tacoma. Pieces that use dance and movement, poetry, music and evocative imagery to tell a story are sought after by Screaming Butterflies.
Philbrook, who once directed the ancient Greek play “Agamemnon,” says that she “particularly loves to take old stories and bring them into today, either by changing the context, drawing connections to current struggles or questions, and/or using music and visual cues to remind us that an old story carries humor and wisdom that we can still recognize.”
“We also,” continues Philbrook, “believe that the people on stage and the designers behind the scenes must reflect the richness of our diverse community, welcoming many genders, cultures, ethnicities, language speakers, and bodies if the art is to be relevant and dynamic.”
True to the above mission statements, Screaming Butterflies comes storming out of gate with its first offering: a dynamic, well-crafted production of William Shakespeare’s “Richard II.”
One of Shakespeare’s so-called history plays, “Richard II” tells the story of the deposition of one English king and his replacement by another, Bolingbroke.
While it is not one of Shakespeare’s best known plays, the poetic and insightful script explores the plight of a ruler who is smug in his assumption of his right to rule. Richard II assumes that his kingship is a God-given right. When he is defeated and imprisoned by his cousin Bolingbroke, however, the fragile King Richard is forced to come face to face with his own humanity; to the fact that he is little different from anyone else made of flesh and blood.
“Richard II” is the first of a tetralogy of plays that depict England’s fall into a time of civil strife and fraternal bloodletting, the War of the Roses. With the deposition of King Richard II, the shroud of darkness descends upon England.
The Screaming Butterflies version of the play is inventive on several fronts. The costumes are striking – described as 1920s Art Deco, the king wears a zoot suit and Bolingbroke is clad in sumptuous, bronzy velvet. Pinstriped suits and ties are sported by many of the characters. The minimal stage sets, consisting of flimsy reflective panels suspended from metal poles and a throne made of particle board, are endlessly rearranged to create a variety of settings: everything from a boxing ring to a prison cell.
Props are minimal, but I enjoyed the sight of courtiers sipping martinis and characters out on the field of battle continually resorting to their flasks in order to alcoholically lubricate their dark and daring deeds.
Mateo Herrera’s original music also helps to set the mood for this descent into political chaos.
What is most remarkable about the play, however, is the brilliant acting on the part of the cast. Using gender neutral casting, a number of the male characters are played by female actors. The lead roles of King Richard II and Bolingbroke, for example, are played by Brittany Henderson and Nastassia Reynolds respectively. Henderson captures all aspects of King Richard’s decline with remarkable ease, transforming from the jaded, self-assured monarch (who is surrounded by flatterers) to the brittle prisoner forced to relinquish his crown. Reynolds, meanwhile, plays Bolingbroke as a fiery, aggressive and brash prince who seizes power as due compensation for personal slights committed by the king. Ben Stahl, one of the region’s great Shakespearians, is magnificent as Northumberland. Snyde and cool as a cucumber, he aids Bolingbroke’s popular rebellion and rise to power.
Cat Waltzer tugs at the heart strings as the sorrowful Queen Isabella, while Jazmine Herrington is riveting as the flashing-eyed Henry Percy. Jackie VC, in her role as the Duchess of York, performs one of the most powerful scenes, which comes late in the play. She falls to her knees before the newly crowned King Henry IV and refuses to get up until the king promises to spare the life of her rebellious son, Aumerle (ably played by Travis Martinez).
AntHicks, a local comedian and performer, provides some comic relief in the play, especially in the role of Green, one of King Richard’s sycophants. AntHicks delivers the Shakespearian language with a southern drawl. LaNita Walters speaks volumes with facial expressions and body language. Ed Medina is there to fill out in variety of auxiliary roles.
Steve Gallion, as the aged John of Gaunt, delivers one of the more memorable speeches in the play, the ode to England, which he sees to be in jeopardy of slipping away from its privileged place in the world through bad kingship. A deep reverence for the soil of England, as an almost sacred substance, comes forward very strenuously from Shakespeare’s lines.
In preparation for viewing this play, I read much of the script while on an airline flight between Dallas and SeaTac. A silent reading did not prepare me for the dynamism with which the actors were able to breathe life and personality into the old language. There is as much said with a sneer, the rolling of eyes and a sigh of impatience as there is with the verbalization itself. It is the actors that make this production such an enjoyable ride.
To get the most out of a Shakespearian play, however, I do recommend that audience members arm themselves with a little foreknowledge. Read or listen to a YouTube synopsis of the play if you do not have time to read the script. The more that you know ahead of time, the less you become bogged down in Shakespeare’s sometimes opaque language. A little preparation ahead of time makes for a more satisfying experience and you will begin to see why Shakespeare is such a revered hero of the English language (if you did not already think so to begin with.)
Screaming Butterflies’ choice of this play at this moment in our national political lives makes for an interesting choice. The examination of an entitled, unreflective ruler who surrounds himself with flatterers is not so far removed from the present day. Will we, in our time, bear witness to the deposition of such a ruler. Will we see a fragile ego dragged off to jail and suffer a crushing crisis of identity as that falsely inflated ego is forced, at long last, to come face to face with the mirror of reality?
And if so, will such an event auger the beginning of a time of civil strife? Shakespeare’s “Richard II” may function as much as a warning of the future as a telling of the past. What becomes of a country, the Bard seems to ask, if the ruler that deposes his predecessor is little better than that which he deposed?
“Richard II” runs through April 29 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Performances are held at Dukesbay Theater at 508 S. 6th Ave., in Tacoma.
For more on the play and Screaming Butterflies Productions, visit screamingbutterfliestheater.wordpress.com.