PlayMakers Repertory Company will open its 2004-05 season with The Tragedy of King Richard II, a controversial but timely chronicle play by Elizabethan dramatist William Shakespeare (1564-1616), preceded by a prologue adapted from Thomas of Woodstock (a.k.a. Richard II, Part I), an anonymous 16th-century play penned sometime between 1591 and 1595. After three preview performances (Oct. 13-15), the show officially opens with a $40-per-ticket opening-night gala on Oct. 16 and runs Tuesday-Sunday through Nov. 7 in Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art.

Shakespeare specialist and longtime PRC artistic director David Hammond will direct an all-star cast that includes guest artists Chandler Williams of New York as Richard II, Antony Hagopian of New York as Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV), and Joseph Bowen of Chicago as The Duke of York. PlayMakers associate artist Tandy Cronyn will play the Duchess of York, PRC company member Ray Dooley will portray Northumberland, and company members Kenneth P. Strong and Jeffrey Blair Cornell will play prominent supporting roles.

Hammond, who is now in his 20th season at PlayMakers, formerly served as resident director for the American Conservatory Theatre and for the Yale Repertory Theatre. He has also directed shows for New York’s Roundabout Theatre, the San Francisco Opera, the Aspen Music Festival, the Carmel Bach Festival, and theaters and festivals across the United States and in Uruguay.

“I did a very successful production of Richard II at the Yale Repertory Theatre 22 years ago, with John Vickery as Richard,” recalls David Hammond. “I’ve known the play since I was a child. I read it when I was about 12 years old. I read all of Shakespeare before I was in high school and I’ve seen many productions [of Richard II].”

Hammond claims, “Shakespeare’s plays are eternal and universal, and they’re always pertinent to the contemporary world. When you read the script, you’re greatly influenced by what’s going on in the world. The psychological journey of all of the characters is clearer to me now than it was 22 years ago, and I see much more balance in the characterizations.”

He adds, “It seemed more black and white to me before. I think that’s because the world is more uncertain now than it was 22 years ago. Absolutes are disappearing. For example, what does it mean to be a patriot? Does it mean to be loyal to what one thinks of as the principles of the country, or to be loyal to whoever’s administrating the country? And there are arguments for both.

“In Richard II,” Hammond continues, “the world changes completely, and all of the characters try to find the right thing to do. Some go one way, and some go another. Both ways are justified, and both provide only partial answers.”

Hammond says, “What made me want to do this particular production is Chandler Williams’ performance in Luminosity [last spring]. We were in rehearsal one day, and I was looking at him and said, ‘You would be a perfect Richard II.’ And he said, ‘When do we start. That is my dream role.’ I think he embodies all of the facets of Richard brilliantly, and then it was a matter of finding a Bolingbroke to match him. So, we did our New York casting, and found Antony Hagopian, a very respected classical actor who was eager to come to Chapel Hill. He provides a perfect contrast, and he’s been a joy [to direct].”

In addition to director David Hammond, the show’s production team will include set and costume designer Bill Clarke, lighting designer M.L. Geiger, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.

David Hammond says, “The [set] design is an abstract design that combines the medieval world and the contemporary world. There’s a sense of the contemporary world rising out of the medieval world the way it is in Europe, where you see a modern Plexiglas structure rising out of medieval ruins.”

Hammond notes, “The costumes are an abstraction. They are influenced by medieval costumes people may even think they are medieval costumes but they are also linked to contemporary high fashion, which is very much influenced by medieval design. It will feel period, but it’s more than that.” And he adds, “The lighting needs to be nonsentimental and nonromantic, but at the same time atmospheric and edgy, because the play is edgy.”

England’s real-life 14th-century king, Richard II (1367-1400), was a brilliant but troubled monarch. Crowned at age 10 and married at 15, he ruled from 1377 until 1399 before being deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, imprisoned, and murdered a year later under mysterious circumstances.

First performed in 1595-96 and first published (in a quarto edition) in 1597, Richard II is, perhaps, the Immortal Bard’s most controversial creation. Its powerful dramatization of the fall of a monarch was considered politically subversive by Queen Elizabeth I and her inner circle, because the Virgin Queen ruled in perilous times and had no offspring to declare her rightful successor.

“The moral decisions the characters have to make are very important to me,” declares David Hammond, “and I like the play’s generosity. Richard II is very honest and fair about humanity. It says that most people just want enough to eat and a good place to sleep. And that that’s all right. We would like to believe that all of our decisions are moral decisions, but they’re usually made to get by. As long as we’re living in a decent world, that’s enough. But if the world becomes indecent, the moral decisions are thrown back on us. And that’s when it gets scary.”

Given this country’s current entanglement in an increasingly unpopular and costly foreign war and growing questions about President George W. Bush’s competence to lead the United States out of the current Middle East morass, Richard II is a timely drama of political intrigue in high places and the terrible consequences that ensue when ambitious courtiers depose a head of state.

Why has Hammond added a Prologue to Richard II? “It’s very short,” he points out. “It’s a tiny little scene from a period play, some of which might have been written by Shakespeare…. It was played by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men about three years before the company performed Richard II. (Shakespeare was already a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at that time.) All of the Elizabethans would have known about the murder of Gloucester, which is a major circumstance of the play. It gives a contemporary audience, in about 45 seconds, the major background of the play.”

Hammond notes that the Prologue is set in an English prison in Calais, France, in 1397, whereas The Tragedy of King Richard II unfolds in England and Wales from 1398 to 1400.

David Hammond, who was just appointed to the artistic advisory panel of the American National Theatre, relishes both the opportunity to introduce a new generation of Triangle theatergoers to Richard II and the creative challenges that ensue. Hammond says, “The major challenge in any Shakespearean play is the handling of the text and keeping the production rooted in text-based acting. For this one, it’s capturing the political world of the play in a way that the audience can understand and follow. It’s getting the richness of the characters, and keeping a balanced view, as Shakespeare does.”

Note: PlayMakers has just installed a new assisted-listening system, based on FM technology, to better serve the company’s patrons who have hearing impairments. Carolina Meadows of Chapel Hill, a not-for-profit continuing-care retirement community, funded the project.

Second Opinion: Oct. 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer “director’s notes” by David Hammond: [login required] .

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents The Tragedy of King Richard II Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 13-16, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Oct. 19-23 and 26-30 and Nov. 2-6, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 24 and 31 and Nov. 7, at 2 p.m. in Paul Green Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (7529). PlayMakers Repertory Company: University of Virginia (Shakespeare Resources): University of Virginia (Richard II Text, 1623 First Folio, edited by John Heminges and Henry Condell): University of Virginia (Richard II Text, 1866 Globe Edition, edited by William George Clark and William Aldis Wright):