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`Richard II' viewed as a down-to-earth monarch. Papp's direction makes the most of small touches

King Richard II By William Shakespeare. New York Shakespeare Festival production, directed by Joseph Papp and starring Peter MacNicol. Peter MacNicol, star of the new ``King Richard II'' directed by Joseph Papp, isn't a kingly sort of actor. He's best known for movie roles like the second banana Stingo in ``Sophie's Choice'' and the ambitious wimp he played in ``Heat.''

But this is all right, since Richard II isn't a kingly sort of king, the way Mr. Papp and his cohorts see him.

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Early in the play, when he's securely ensconced in power, he sits cross-legged on his throne and fidgets with regal equipment - crown, scepter, and so on - while affairs of state unfold around him.

Later, deposed and then imprisoned by his adversaries, he's sympathetic as a person but hardly imposing as a once-and-former monarch.

``Richard II'' isn't even kingly as a play. It doesn't have the high drama (or high comedy) of Shakespeare's best history plays, and it's not produced too often.

The New York Shakespeare Festival, presenter of the current production at the Delacorte Theater, hasn't mounted it for 26 years. In a program note, Papp says the problem is the play's florid language.

It has effective moments, though, and so does Papp's rendering of it. Mr. MacNicol isn't a powerful figure, but he's distinctive enough - with his wispy figure and personable drawl - to give the play a solid center of gravity. He can also radiate a fair amount of emotional heat when the occasion arises.

And while Papp doesn't generate much energy in some potentially powerful scenes, he makes the most of small touches - like Richard's body language, or the visionary lighting and music that bolster the end of the play, or even the way people stand around and politely smile at an old man's jokes in one bittersweet scene.

Other assets of this ``Richard II'' include a sturdy performance by Victor Love as Aumerle, the King's cousin and best friend, and an explosively comic Duchess of York played by Judith Malina, a leader of the experimental-theater scene who's just as much at home in the mainstream.

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On the minus side, several secondary parts are not excitingly handled, and John Bedford-Lloyd plods through the important role of Bolingbroke, later to be Henry IV.

Still, there's enough in this outdoor ``Richard II'' to merit attention and respect. One looks forward to the rest of this unusual Central Park season, which features a Shakespeare triple play - to continue with ``The Two Gentlemen of Verona'' and conclude with ``Henry IV, Part I.''

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