Monday, March 21, 2016

Shakespeare's Rose Queen (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

The Ensemble Shakespeare Theatre recently completed a run of what strikes me as a very exciting project.  Writer/director Brian Elerding looked at the four plays that comprise Shakespeare's cycle about the so-called Wars of the Roses (actually at the time they were simply called The Cousins War, but never mind--this isn't about literal history)--Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III--and decided to focus upon the one character they have in common.  Margaret of Anjou, the "she wolf of France."  Like several other French brides to weak English Kings, she earned a reputation for arrogance and cruelty that had quite a lot to do with her being a woman.

What Elerding did was to radically edit all four plays to create in effect a new work--Shakespeare's Rose Queen.  It charts a young princess who finds love and comfort amid a faction-ridden foreign court, learning eventually to defend herself, becoming the leader in one side of a long Civil War.  In the end, she loses.  The tides of battle and human betrayal turn, her ever-rising rage and pride crashing against the rocks of history.  She loses everything.  Yet lives long enough to see the cycle start anew for her successor as Queen.

Now I want to make a point here.  Of late the most exciting Shakespeare productions I've seen tend to perform the plays with some kind of twist, a stepping sideways in some way that somehow brings the whole thing into sharper relief.  Be it Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Othello--when it works we see them anew, more vividly and true to themselves.

In other words, exactly waht Elerding is trying to pull off here.  Does he succeed?  Almost.  He has certainly created a fascinating piece of theatre, melding not only Shakespeare's language but also a sense of dance/movement very modern yet also timeless.  The battles in particular--enacted as beautiful but grotesque dance far upstage, two lines of performers struggling with one another without really touching--grabbed my attention and stirred my reactions.  So too did many performances, acting out scenes those of us who love Shakespeare rarely get to see.  Natalie Fryman for example as the young Richard, who will one day be the terrible tyrant.  John McCormick as Richard of York, perhaps the only person who ever loved Richard, the royal duke who gambled for the throne and just barely lost.  Sonny Calvano as Warwick, the Kingmaker, in this production an almost spider-like figure with the manner of a fussy monk.  Jay Blair as Henry VI, son of the brilliant war leader who came to the throne before his first birthday and clearly felt the burden of the crown with none of its pleasures.

Along the way, let me also praise Megan Rippey as the title character, who correspondingly shows us the arc of hopes dashed, victories stolen, frustrations stirred, revenges coming to nothing, until all she has turns to ashes.  The whole cast really did a very fine job indeed.

So why do I say "almost"?

Nuance mostly.  Shakespeare's Rose Queen works on very many levels, but the pace ultimately becomes too frantic in the second act.  Small wonder, given the source material (and presents a major challenge for anyone producing the Henry VI plays).  But that frantic pace interfered with character after a time.

At this point, as a playwright myself, I'm sorely tempted to start offering specific suggestions--which is not my place.  This is Brian Elerding's vision, and my job here is only to point out what seems the weakest part of his work--while noting I believe he can fix this, not least because of the extraordinary results already achieved.  As he himself notes in the program "There are battles ignored here, plot twists forgotten and entire subplots omitted."  Of necessity!  The result dazzled me in many ways.

I'd like to do a call out to the rest of the cast as well, including JR Davidson, Katie Peabody, Daniel Rivera and Brian White.  The original score by John Guth also melded very well with Hilary Thomas' choreography.  This particular show's run has ended.  I saw the last performance.  But I very much hope more productions follow.

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