Power drama “Richard II” gets gender makeover

09/19/2013 12:00 AM

09/18/2013 12:17 PM

Sometimes it takes a woman to be a king.

The new Prospect Theater Project staging of William Shakespeare’s historical play “Richard II” flips the gender in the classic work, giving us a female king. Veteran Modesto actress Jenni Abbott portrays the doomed British monarch in the production, which begins its run Sept. 27 at Prospect, opening the company’s 2013-14 season.

Artistic Director Jack Souza said the sex change-up isn’t uncommon in modern stagings of the Shakespearean work. He decided to go with a female lead because it was a more natural fit for the character.

“To my mind, casting a woman in the role is in many ways just more appropriate, particularly in the ways we’re meant to understand Richard’s temperament and disposition,” Souza said. “In a lot of ways, it’s easier to cast a woman. In a lot of historical texts, Richard is characterized as being effeminate. Men tend to misinterpret that. Also, Richard as a woman works well because of the more cerebral aspects to his characters, especially in opposition to Henry, who was more traditionally male.”

Oakdale actor Joseph Curdy will portray Henry Bolingbroke, King Richard II’s cousin who later takes his crown. Curdy is an Oxfordian scholar who studied in Stratford, England, and brings a wealth of academic Shakespearean knowledge to the cast, Souza said.

Abbott, meanwhile, has some two decades’ worth of acting experience in the area and had lead roles in past Prospect performances of “The Belle of Amherst,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” and directed “Pygmalion.”

“Jenni is one of those actresses who across the board demands respect,” Souza said.

The play chronicles the last few years of Richard II’s reign and explores the nature of leadership and power. The Prospect production features a cast of 14, including veteran performers Christopher Volkerts, Reed Boyer, Bill Roe, Michael Hewitt and Robin Bjerke.

Souza will direct the production, which will include period 14th century costuming by The RedHead’s Threads. Souza said he was attracted to the history and drama inherent in “Richard II.”

“I think audiences can look forward to a really human approach to Shakespeare. This is not a play about beautiful language, but about the complexity of human relationships under duress.”

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