The Holy Terror
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 17, 2005
I don't typically see college theatre productions because I'm not asked to review them; but Kevin Connell (who has been an occasional reviewer for nytheatre.com for several years) invited me to see his adaptation of Richard II, called The Holy Terror, at Marymount Manhattan College, where he is Associate Professor of Theatre Arts, and so I went. And I am very glad I did.
I don't know if you share this misconception, but my memories of college theatre (from my own time, working in the box office and reviewing for a college newspaper, some 20-odd years ago) are of earnest but amateur work. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least not with regard to what I saw last night at Marymount. The Holy Terror's production values reflect not only a budget larger than most small indie theaters can muster but also significant talent and taste; the acting—by twenty juniors and seniors—is similarly impressive. Connell, who has also directed the piece, makes a lot of demands on his company: they have to master rigorous movement (lots of Wilsonian slow-and-steady pacing, here remarkably purposeful and useful to the storytelling) plus the difficult cadences and rhythms of Shakespearean verse. They acquit themselves not just competently but in almost all cases masterfully. Some of the young faces on the stage of the Theresa Lang Theatre are destined to be seen elsewhere, soon.
Speaking of young faces, one of the most striking and successful aspects of the production is the presence of a very young man as Richard II. Richard was just ten when he ascended to the throne and just 32 when he was deposed; to see him—in his 20s at the start of the play—portrayed by a man in his 20s is rare and useful. Will Trichon, who takes the role, does a fine job in it, traversing from a very spoiled, very petulant young man who believes absolutely in the divine right of kings (i.e., that his seat on the throne has been ordained by God) to a sadder but wiser man, cut down before his time and now entirely without resources in defeat, like a child star lacking any of the wherewithal to grow into an uncelebrated and ordinary human being.
Connell has cast the play sharply throughout, with excellent performances turned in by Lea Maria McKenna-Garcia as Richard's opponent Bolingbroke, Justin Morck as the marshal Exton, Michelle Navarrete and Caitlin McColl as Bolingbroke's supporters Northumberland and Percy, Limor Hakim as the Bishop, and—in two surprisingly vivid cameos—Nathaniel Vaky and Kaia Pazdersky as the two gardeners who inadvertently break the news of Richard II's capture by Bolingbroke to his hitherto in-the-dark queen.
Connell's adaptation, which adds text from a variety of sources to an abbreviation of Richard II, streamlines the story and themes of Shakespeare's original, honing in sharply on one main idea—the notion that absolute monarchy corrupts absolutely. His Richard takes and squanders freely because he knows he can, and the very idea that he can be contradicted—let alone deposed—is radical. Connell charts one of western civilization's first steps toward democracy in this account of Bolingbroke's courageous defiance of a king who supposedly has been anointed by God; the Bishop's horror at Bolingbroke's ascension amplifies just how revolutionary this victory actually was.
The Holy Terror does not shrink from other matters, however: we still hear Richard ponder the death of kings in the play's most famous speech (wisely uncut by Connell; I hate adaptations of famous plays that leave the most famous stuff out, making us wonder if we missed something). But this Richard's belief in the "hollow crown" feels more hollow than usual—Connell and his actors never let us forget that the movers and shakers of big events who populate this play are also just people, fueled by the same drives as you and me; this Richard never quite loses his petulance, even in defeat.
The set by Ray Recht is stark and imposing and lets us fill in, in our mind's eye, the numerous locations; Kirche Leigh Zelle's costumes—blending Egyptian and Roman styles with medieval England's—provide a timelessness to the piece and, in the case of Richard and his followers, a reinforcement of the culture of sensuality that would serve to bring them down. Geoffrey Mitchell's lighting is superb, especially in the second half, when the shadows of Richard and Bolingbroke hold our focus more and more frequently. Sound design by Connell and Geroge Jones—a mix of period and modern techno music—proves evocative and ambient.
Connell's staging is triumphant throughout. Not only has he succeeded in zeroing in, with real clarity and acuity, on a very specific take on a classic story, but he's also done a bang-up job of good old-fashioned storytelling. The Holy Terror holds our interest throughout: it's a ripping yarn. In the end, that's the best we can ask from theatre wherever we find it, on Broadway or on a college campus.