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`Richard II' Gains Power Onstage

Shakespeare Festival's latest offering transforms classic play into stylized production

THE TRAGEDY OF RICHARD II. Play by William Shakespeare.

Starring Michael Stuhlbarg, Andre Braugher, and Carole Shelley. At the Joseph Papp Public/Anspacher Theater through May 1.

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YEARS have passed since the New York Shakespeare Festival announced its ambition to stage all of Shakespeare's plays in a Marathon series. While new installments haven't been arriving at a very rapid pace, the enterprise is still going strong.

I've seen all 24 entries to date, and my favorite remains the ``Coriolanus'' staged by British director Steven Berkoff a few seasons ago, with Christopher Walken in the title role. Berkoff has returned for the marathon's latest offering, ``The Tragedy of Richard II,'' and again the results are very impressive - although Berkoff's tendency to stylize, postmodernize, and avant-gardize everything in sight won't suit the tastes of Shakespeare traditionalists.

``Richard II'' is not among Shakespeare's richest plays, either poetically or psychologically. It contains a number of powerful scenes and speeches, however, and develops considerable power as its hero - faced with intrigue and revolution stirred up an exiled aristocrat - is deprived of his crown, his liberty, and ultimately his life.

Berkoff's interpretation puts special emphasis on a contradiction built into the late-medieval notion of authority, which vacillated between faith in the divine right of monarchs and recognition that an ineffective leader might be legitimately deposed by the people. Shakespeare's exploration of this issue is only a subtext of ``Richard II,'' but Berkoff enhances it through subtle alterations in verbal rhythms, body language, and lighting effects at certain moments.

This approach might seem intrusive in a different sort of production. It works perfectly well here, however, since Berkoff also uses a steady stream of not-so-subtle devices - such as sing-song recitations and broadly choreographed movements - to transform the text of ``Richard II'' into a series of inventively conceived set pieces that shift freely between psychological realism and undisguised theatricality. Each scene is staged in the manner that suits it best according to the director's overall scheme, and that scheme is so cogent and coherent that the production has no trouble coalescing into a smoothly flowing whole.

While the result doesn't gather the inexorable momentum that distinguished Berkoff's brilliant ``Coriolanus,'' it sheds exciting new light on a play that generally falls short of Shakespeare's highest standard. It is especially fascinating to observe how Berkoff uses certain mannerisms of early Shakespeare works - the abundance of rhyme and meager amount of prose, for instance - as grist for his own desire to stylize much of the action. At times this gives rise to richly ironic effects, as when Richard lingers sardonically over a particularly arch couplet while members of his court titter approvingly in the background.

Berkoff's efforts are carried forward by an excellent group of performers and other colleagues. Michael Stuhlbarg is versatile as Richard, moving effortlessly between touching pathos and comic turns that are enhanced by his good-humored use of an expressive face that recalls the countenance of the late, great Charles Ludlam.

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Other standouts include Andre Braugher as the slippery Bolingbroke; Earle Hyman as the aging John of Gaunt; and Herb Foster and Carole Shelley as the Duke and Duchess of York.

Brian Nason did the boldly effective lighting, and Christine Jones designed the simple but functional setting. Larry Spivack, a one-man band of amazing talent, wrote and performed the energetic music.

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