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[Theater reviews]

Two for Richard
Woodruff and Derrah confront the king


“I want to see your eyes!” shouts the director, all in black, from the sidelines. “I know, I know. I’m thinking,” responds the actor sprawled out on the rehearsal-room floor. The two men are surrounded by 20 bystanders — other actors, stage managers, visitors sitting in — but in that instant they manage to shut out the distractions. Like Al Pacino, they are “looking for Richard.” This is all in a day’s work for director Robert Woodruff and actor Thomas Derrah, as they go about the business of rehearsing Shakespeare’s Richard II, the final play in the current American Repertory Theatre season.

When the production opens this weekend, the Loeb stage will be peopled by dozens of characters and backed by layers of spectacle provided by a world-class design team. Nevertheless, given Shakespeare’s take on this man who would not be king and the play’s vague parallels to imminent changes in leadership at the American Repertory Theatre, the heart of the matter rests in this collaboration between two men who would seem to represent the future of the ART. Thomas Derrah, of course, has been a member of the acting company since the beginning. Best known as a brilliant comedian, he will be stretched and challenged by the psychological conundrum that is Shakespeare’s Richard II. Robert Woodruff returns to Cambridge to direct his third full production, having staged in recent years Brecht’s In the Jungle of Cities and Full Circle, Charles L. Mee’s radical adaptation of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. He is the most talked-about candidate to succeed Robert Brustein as the ART’s next artistic director, and if he does take over, few will be surprised.

But for Woodruff, speculation of this sort is a minor distraction from the task of bringing one of Shakespeare’s trickier history plays to life for a 21st-century audience. Richard II is a fascinating study in a self-destructive narcissism. The play chronicles the period in Richard’s late-14th-century reign from shortly after the mysterious murder of his uncle, Duke of Gloucester, through the usurpation of the throne by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who’s now better known as Henry IV. In his depiction of an uneasy and self-indulgent monarch brought low by political machinations, Shakespeare seems to have taken his cue from Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, a play that has interested Woodruff for some time. But the choice of Richard II had more to do with the pairing of actor and director. “Tommy was the only member of the company that I hadn’t worked with on the two other projects,” the director explains, “and I said I would really like to make something with him. I remember watching Tommy and watching the audience watch him in the last 10 minutes of The Idiots Karamazov [in which Derrah gave a hilarious, bravura performance as the translator Constance Garnett]. He could do anything he wanted. And I thought, ‘That’s fun. That’s a Richard I want.’ There is this whole performance aspect of the part, and I wanted that performer.”

Once the play was chosen last spring, Woodruff and Derrah began an extended collaborative dialogue about the play. Both men agreed early on that the conventional view of Richard as a weak and ineffectual king held little appeal for them. “Traditionally,” Derrah points out, “this play has been pigeonholed as ‘Bad ruler. Waster of money. Makes a lot of tactical political errors. Things are taken away from him. Poor him. And then he gets all introspective and starts to understand what it is like to be a Person.’ Actors have found that to be a very satisfying, if self-indulgent, experience — to wallow in self-pity and become so tragic and ruined and stripped of all vestiges of whatever. But that’s not what this production is going to be about. This is going to be a much more provocative reading of the play.”

“Ultimately,” Woodruff adds, “I think I was interested in the willfulness of Richard, not so much in the man who has power wrested from him — that is an interesting story, but we know that story — but in the man who gives up power, who surrenders power. When you look at the play and see the number of gestures that Richard makes toward his own destruction, you can either say he’s just unwise, or he’s headstrong, or there’s something else going on.”

For Woodruff, there’s clearly something else going on. He looks at Richard as “somebody who defines and determines his life at every moment,” almost as if he were creating a work of art, but that work is defined by a reckless daring and a penchant for chaos that makes it an act of destruction as well. Derrah suggests that “the notion of nihilism and annihilation has always fascinated creative people. The arc of the play traces a self-destructive act, and we are investigating this notion that it is a creative act to undo. I think Richard likes the idea of chaos, of creating chaos and seeing what can be created out of chaos. The reasons are still becoming clear to me. We’re hammering this out.”

Richard II is at the American Repertory Theatre May 11 through June 10. Tickets are $29 to $59; call (617) 547-8300.

Issue Date: May 10-17, 2001