Richard II at Pigeon Creek…aint it fun!
Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company opens the second act of “Richard II” with Paramore’s pop rock hit “Ain’t it Fun.” The lyrics “livin’ in the real world” not only apply to the plight of the deposed king, but also describe the company’s whole approach to Shakespeare.
Opening each act with music, like other company traditions such as using room lighting and cross-gender casting, not only derive from the way theater was presented in Shakespeare’s time, but also meet practical needs in the “real world” of today’s theater.
Both of the kings in the current production – Richard and Henry Bolingbroke— are portrayed by women. Women also portray several Dukes and Lords in the male-heavy script. In every case the performers are more concerned about portraying the emotions of the character accurately than pretending to be men. The result is a refreshing honesty.
Kat Hermes, who has portrayed many of Shakespeare’s men, creates an eye-rolling King Richard who is frustrated by the petty arguments of his relatives. She often uses a flippant gesture or intonation that seems more like a 21st Century teen than medieval royalty, but the modern additions make Shakespeare’s words and Richard’s character more relevant to today’s audience.
Kathleen Bode, another veteran of many Pigeon Creek roles, portrays Henry as a more serious, determined cousin, who takes over the throne from the whiny, money-grabbing Richard.
Using 13 performers, the company fills more than 30 roles with almost everyone doing double duty. Even Hermes takes off King Richard’s crown to become a bumbling gardener. Claire Mahave first appears as the Duchess of Gloucester, and then with minimal costume and hair change gives a very strong performance as Richard’s uncle, the Duke of York.
Michael Dodge commands the stage as Richard’s uncle John, Henry’s dad. But after the wisecracking old man dies, Dodge becomes a much younger Henry Percy. Even with a costume change and jaunty green hat, and Dodge’s best efforts to appear bright-eyed, the audience must turn a blind eye to accept the gray-haired actor as the “young” son of the Earl of Northumberland, who is enthusiastically portrayed by Scott Wright. Sean Kelley also juggles several roles including the volatile Thomas Mowbray and the much more reserved Bishop of Carlisle.
Pigeon Creek often uses a broad interpretation of Shakespearean traditions. For instance the company doesn’t confine itself to 16th century melodies for the musical interludes, but chooses modern day pop tunes that go along with the plot and inspire the audience to sing along, much as Shakespeare’s audiences probably responded to the minstrels of his day.
The costumes, on the other hand, feature medieval details with exaggerated sleeves and rolled collars. Even the simple fast-change belted tunics hold up well under the close inspection of the intimate 50-seat Dog Story Theater. The shiny metal helmets and chest armor used in this production are amazingly authentic looking.
The program credits the king himself, Kat Hermes, for the costumes. The show is directed by Angela Boyle and Francis Boyle with music direction by Scott Lange. Sets are minimal, and sword play thankfully kept to a minimum since the audience is basically on stage.
Focus, instead, is on the words themselves which are delivered with great diction and expressive phrasing, even in the rhyming verse of “Richard II.”
This is definitely Shakespeare in the real world, and as Paramore would say, “Ain’t it Fun?”