Christopher Henley is the artistic director and Brian Hemmingsen is the former artistic director of the Washington Shakespeare Company. Both were founding members of the company's ensemble when it started back in 1990. Now they co-star in the final production of a play by the company's namesake at the Clark Street Playhouse before it is demolished to make way for development on the north end of Crystal City.
When theater fans look back on the record of this company in this space, this production is not likely to be the first thing to come to mind but it is still one last chance to experience "the bard" in this space.
The Washington Shakespeare Company has had many triumphs in a theater community that is replete with Shakespearean companies. There is the resident company of the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. There's the Shakespeare Free For All at the Carter Baron Amphitheater in Rock Creek Park, a feature of Michael Kahn's world-renowned Shakespeare Theatre Company which performs year round on 7th Street NW.
Despite such august competition, this small professional company has built a strong reputation in the local professional theater community. It has drawn many honors including twenty six nominations for Helen Hayes Awards for marvelous productions not only of works by Shakespeare, but classics by Euripides and more contemporary playwrights such as Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams, Peter Shaffer and Edward Albee as well as local playwrights such as Chris Stezin and Allyson Currin.
Many well known Mlocal performers have played the Clark Street Playhouse under the auspices of this company. These include Charlotte Akin, Joe Baker, Jenifer Deal, Jim Jorgensen, Daniel Ladmirault, Hugh T. Owen, Bruce Alan Rauscher, Suzanne Richard, Delia Taylor, Grady Weatherford, Brandon Thane Wilson and David Lamont Wilson.
The company still has two productions to go in their 2005-06 season, but this production of "Richard II" is the final Shakespearean play on the schedule before they must vacate the Clark Street Playhouse. Later this spring they will offer a pair of plays in repertory: Lillian Hellman's "The
Children's Hour" and Julie Jensen's "Two-Headed." Then, they must vacate the Clark Street Playhouse for good.
Arlington County's Cultural Affairs Division isn't leaving them out in the cold, however. The County owns the Clark Street Playhouse as well as other performance spaces such as the Thomas Jefferson Theatre, the two theaters in the Gunston Arts Center, the Spectrum in Rosslyn and Theatre on the Run on South Four Mile Run Drive.
WHAT IS MORE, the County has purchased the building where Signature Theatre resides and will turn it into a multiple-venue facility when Signature moves into its new home in Shirlington. The County is currently assessing just how much renovation work is going to be required at the old Signature space where the Washington Shakespeare Company will perform in the future, but they say that they will have space in their other venues for the company until the new space is ready.
This "Richard II" is directed by Robert McNamara, the Artistic Director of the SCENA Theater headquartered in Washington. He directs both locally and overseas where he's had productions in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Indonesia and other countries. His work is often on the cutting edge of contemporary theater movements and his "Richard II" has some of the signs of current trend toward having a strong concept make the production unlike other versions of the same Shakespearean play.
In both his editing of the script and the visual design, McNamara puts his own stamp on the work. Those looking for a literal presentation of the original play are bound to be disappointed, but those looking for a new view of an old war horse may find some things to enjoy.
Perhaps the strongest element to recommend the production is the performance of Henley in the title role. His Richard is a king alternately reveling in his own power and importance and fearing his future and impotence. Henley also has the greatest skill of the cast for delivering the specialized meter of Shakespeare's verse in a dramatic context. He never seems to be reciting poetry. Instead, the meaning of his lines shine through and reveal the thoughts of his character quite clearly.
His co-star, Brian Hemmingsen, also brings a strong facility for Shakespearean readings to his performance, but his characterization of Henry Bolingbroke, Richard's cousin who overthrows him and assumes his throne to become King Henry IV, is less vibrant and strikes fewer chords than does Henley's. Still, when his Henry approaches the historic moment of usurpation that will seal his own fate as well as that of his country, Hemmingsen gets the weight of the sense of history and a sincere dread of the consequences across in a very satisfying scene.
McNamara's concept calls for a strange approach to both costume and set design. A. J. Guban's two-story grey set works well and lighting designer Marianne Meadows does some interesting work with florescent lights, but the semi-goth, semi-punk costumes designed by Jennifer Tardiff break the connection to the historical aspect of this history play.
Still, the play makes history of its own by bringing to an end the series of interesting and frequently thrilling presentations of the work of William Shakespeare including an amazing series over the past two years when every one of Shakespeare's plays was given at least a staged reading here in the Clark Street Playhouse.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.