Review: ‘The Death of Kings Part One: I Come But for Mine Own’

Richard II Subsides, Plump Jack Abides in DOK 1

This major new project from the UCSB Theater program takes its title from lines spoken by Richard II. Newly returned from Ireland to the shores of Wales, Richard realizes that his rival for the throne, Henry Bolingbroke, has taken advantage of his absence to turn what seems like the entire kingdom against him. In despair of his political situation, which he correctly estimates to be hopeless, King Richard reflects that, “Our lands, our lives, our all, are Bolingbroke’s.” The king’s only remaining possession is his own death, “And that small model of the barren earth/ Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.”

With this thought of his grave still in mind, Richard makes one of the most memorable recommendations in all of Shakespeare, saying, “For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground/ And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” In Charles Grant’s brilliant performance, the shattered 14th century king’s words glitter with the disco dust of the 21st, becoming, for a moment, the center of this extraordinary re-imagining of Shakespeare’s complex vision of early English history.

While it doesn’t quite qualify as a romp, I Come But For Mine Own is a balanced and exciting evening of theater that succeeds in keeping the pace from ever lagging as we tour through some of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements. The tremendous rhetorical exuberance of the desperate final days of King Richard II fly by, as Jeff Mills as Bolingbroke and Charles Grant as Richard engage in a bitter struggle over the usurping Henry IV’s determination to force Richard II to hand over the crown.

In the long middle section that covers both of the Henry IV plays, we get several thrilling action sequences. First comes some very effective scenes of young Prince Hal’s riotous living, and these are followed by Hal’s participation in the battle of Shrewsbury, where he kills his rival, Harry Percy, aka Hotspur (Bryson Rawn). Cameron Gray turns in a splendid performance as Hal.

Appel’s adaptation heightens the tension between Hal’s conflicting allegiances. His desire to prove himself to his father, who makes no secret of his preference for Hotspur, drives Hal to seek glory on the battlefield, while his waning affection for his close friend and party time companion Falstaff would seem to lead him towards a more holistic understanding of war and in particular its negative consequences, such as sudden death. Hal’s motivation for fiercely and absolutely rejecting Falstaff makes psychological sense in reference to displaced anger towards his natural father; at the same time, this heartbreaking betrayal remains something of a tragic mystery.

Anne Torsiglieri is brilliant as Falstaff. The petite professor gives a wonderfully comic physical performance while wearing a prosthetic belly and sporting a beard like a billy goat, but the real key to the excitement she creates every time she steps onto the stage lies in the degree to which she inhabits Plump Jack’s seemingly limitless mind. It will be a treat to return to see this production again in order to observe Torsiglieri moving even deeper into the greatest comic character in the history of the stage. The casting of a woman in a male role is hardly news, but the way that this particular performance brings out the love that Falstaff feels for young Hal, and the way that Shakespeare’s creation recalls Chaucer’s equally outrageous Wife of Bath is something special. Falstaff, like Chaucer’s Wife, embodies a vitality that demands imaginative freedom. “Give me life” is their motto, as it should be ours.

The final sequences including the battle of Agincourt and the French to English lesson of Katharine (Maddie Martin) and her maid Alice (Peerada Meemalayath), both drawn from Henry V, are splendid, and are important to the balancing act of this beautifully organized, highly cohesive effort. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

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