Jay Myers (from left), George Mount, Jason Marr, Dan Kremer, Peter Jacobs in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2014 production of “Richard II.” Photo by John Ulman

Jay Myers (from left), George Mount, Jason Marr, Dan Kremer, Peter Jacobs in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s 2014 production of “Richard II.” Photo by John Ulman

In director Rosa Joshi’s visually stunning production of “Richard II,” currently at Seattle Shakespeare Company, the austerity of the set imbues every object and movement with symbolic significance. The first play in Shakespeare’s historic tetralogy known as the Henriad, “Richard II” depicts the beginning of the Wars of the Roses, the struggle between two branches of the Plantagenet family for control of the monarchy. 

In Joshi’s vision, the throne, the symbol of monarchy, is ever-present and, indeed, the only onstage furnishing; but the stark seat on the raised dais more closely resembles a gallows or an electric chair than a monarch’s luxurious chair.

In the Henriad (which includes “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Parts I and II” and “Henry V”), Shakespeare uses historic events to explore what constitutes leadership. Both a history play and a tragedy, “Richard II” is a study in the contrasts between two men. In isolated and static splendor atop his throne with orb and scepter in hand, Richard (Seattle Shakespeare artistic director George Mount) sports all the trappings of a king by divine right but owns none of the talent or predilection to rule. On the other hand, Richard’s cousin and eventual usurper, Henry Bolingbroke (David Foubert), comprehends the burdens of monarchy; in one scene, he stares at the throne with foreboding, hesitant to take a seat on it.

Mount’s Richard starts out as a lisping, dandified hedonist, with no stomach for violence. Yet early on, Mount introduces glimpses of Richard’s humanity through his love for his queen (Brenda Joyner) and his loyalty to his friends, however undeserving. After the usurpation, the lisp, the affectation and hauteur are gone, leaving Richard with nothing but his humanity.

Nor is Henry merely a ruthless usurper. Foubert’s equally subtle portrayal provides us with hints of a man torn between ambition and family loyalties, revenge and pity.

Urging Henry on is the Earl of Northumberland, portrayed by Reginald Andre Jackson with a constant undertone of threat beneath a smiling, soft-spoken exterior.

Lovely Brenda Joyner imbues Richard’s Queen with intelligence and sweetness. Portraying all of the other female roles is Kate Wisniewski, who adds a much-needed glint of humor as the Duchess of York, the overbearing and doting mother of Aumerle (David Brown King).

Other cast notables include Mike Dooly, making a distinct impression in each of several varied roles, from the banished warrior Mowbray to the politically minded Abbot. Dan Kremer is memorable as both the aging John of Gaunt and a philosophical gardener.

Among the production’s many visual delights, a personal favorite is a tableau vivant of the King and Court acting as a backdrop to Henry and his co-conspirators. Implementing Joshi’s painterly vision are scenic designer Carol Wolfe Clay, lighting designer Geoff Korf and costume designer Jocelyne Fowler, working in a muted palette of ivory and brown. Dominic Cody Kramers provides the ominous sound design.

“Richard II” plays at the Center Theater at Seattle Center through Feb. 2. For more information, visit seattleshakespeare.org. 

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