As with Shakespeare's other early history plays, Richard II is a minor drama. But then there's this King Richard fellow upon whom the play is completely dependent. He's cunning, power mad, a warrior, a manipulator, a thief and, finally, a deposed king despairing at poetic heights--a character sufficiently complex to augur the Sophoclean power that would one day come pouring from his creator.

But that's only if you believe he's a king in the first place. Back in the days of bearskin rugs, kings ruled with such ferocity that even their closest advisors appreciated their own heads' transience. But, under the guidance of Nan Doherty, Tygres Heart Shakespeare Co. has just ginned up a production of Richard that makes you wonder whether this king was ever truly born to the purple.

Doherty, Tygres Heart's artistic director, is as literal-minded as an accountant, not recognizing that whole scenes might profitably be cut from the text and that staging risks must be taken to make the play work. Period productions, such as Doherty's, only work if a director has good actors--and here the acting is college-freshman level.

Here, actors chew up lines with no taste for the play's poetry or the action embedded in the verse. They gesticulate like chickens being chased about a coop, which is at least livelier than the fight choreography.

What's more, the play's problematic dramatic arc eludes Doherty: Richard begins on top of the world, climbs no higher, then begins a descent from power and identity that consumes more than half the play. Faced with that, the play's opening scenes must peak rapidly, but here it's the valley of the shadow of dramatic death: characters shouting constantly, stage pictures that don't guide your eyes to the King, and an overall sense that this is a medieval Rotary Club meeting, not a royal court.

Actor Keith Scales is of no help. King Richard is an ever-shifting bastard, one who chooses when to turn on the charm and when to mess with his subjects' heads. He is clearly King, clearly in charge. But Scales' Richard rarely holds power of any description. Sure, Scales rears his chin in the air in mock-regality--but Richard would toss a baby into the Thames if he could make some money on the deal. Scales just doesn't get that our boy is rather bad.

In Scales' hands--and mouth--Richard starts the play like someone who thinks he kicks ass but lacks the boots. Then, there's that odd trill to his voice; it's supposed to convey deep emotions. Instead, it comes across as puerile quavering. Sure, Richard does turn into a self-pitying whiner once he's deposed. But that's later. First, the King must be the King. Otherwise, the entire production feels as half-earned as the tears Scales' Richard cries at the end of the play as he, and we, compare a prison cell to the world.

Richard the Second

Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company at the Winningstad Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 288-8400. 7 pm Thursdays, 8 pm Fridays, 2 and 8 pm Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes Feb. 17. $24-28.

"Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently." --