Timothy Douglas played Trinculo and Rocco Sisto played Caliban in “The Tempest” at Shakespeare & Company last year. Togetherness was required in a comic scene in the second act when they shelter under the same blanket.
“To act side by side with someone as intimately as we were — we literally had to spend time under a blanket, physically entwined — you really get to know somebody,” Douglas says.
Now Douglas is directing Sisto as Shakespeare’s “Richard II” for the Lenox company in performances beginning Friday at the Tina Packer Playhouse.
“We spent a lot of time under the covers,” Sisto says, chuckling. “Not the usual way an actor will get — well, it is a way I’ve heard actors will get roles — but, um, it was very public too, it was in front of 300 people, so it was sort of interesting. But yes, I was under the sheets with my director.”
They are fine with the casting couch jokes, but in truth the mutual admiration society had already formed between the two, who are founding members of the company. Artistic director Tony Simotes was planning a run through Shakespeare’s history plays and asked Sisto if he’d like to tackle “Richard II.” Sisto said yes and thought of his then-“Tempest” castmate.
“We were waiting to make an entrance,” Sisto says, “and just before we went on, I said, ‘I’m playing Richard next year, do you want to direct?’ ”
That was how it started.
And this May, they began meeting regularly at Sisto’s East Village apartment to talk about where they would take the play. Neither of them liked the usual interpretation. Richard II sows the seeds of his own destruction when he usurps the exiled Henry Bolingbroke’s wealth to fund his Irish war. Richard is often portrayed as “this fop that runs around on a shopping spree using all the money,” Sisto says, “but in fact that’s not really the character, that’s not really what the text says.”
“Richard was the first king in his family who practiced diplomacy first before going to war . . . so I consider him a visionary,” says Douglas. “I’ve seen several productions in the past where they take him as being indecisive, as being frivolous and completely self-centered, where it appears he doesn’t understand what is going on around him. And I believe just the opposite, that he completely sees what is happening around him and is choosing to evolve his country, or attempts to, anyway.”
The production also has a different take on Bolingbroke, played by Tom O’Keefe, who appeared here in 2010 with Sisto in “The Taster.” They leave it open as to whether he’s seeking Richard’s crown or only accepts it as a consequence of fighting for his rightful inheritance.
“We let the audience decide who is right and who is wrong,” says Douglas, which to them seems closer to Shakespeare’s original intentions.
The play also touches on the question of the king’s divine anointment and who, then, can usurp him. Douglas is building a subtle religious frame for his “austere” modern-dress production, which he says resembles a modern American mega-church, with leaders in sharp suits and New Age spirituals playing them into and out of scenes. “It’s more suggestion than literal,” he says.
Shakespeare wrote “Richard II” entirely in verse, and Sisto says that was actually an aid to actors navigating through the play. “There’s a wave you can get on and ride because of the rhythms.”
‘Bill W. and Dr. Bob’
A new production of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey’s play about the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, begins performances July 8 at New York’s 199-seat SoHo Playhouse. The production is funded by tax-exempt donations to the nonprofit Hazelden Foundation, and net proceeds go to Hazelden in part to support a college tour of the play to address the binge drinking on campuses.
Shem and Surrey are a married couple from Newton. Shem is the pen name of Dr. Stephen Bergman, a former Harvard Medical School faculty member, who used it on his novels “The House of God” and “Mount Misery.” Surrey is a clinical psychologist. The play was first seen at a New Repertory Theatre reading in 1990 and has been produced many times since in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Tickets, $85-$99, 866-811-4111, www.sohoplayhouse.com.