Friday, April 19, 2024

The History Plays at the Guthrie Theater

The Guthrie Theater is presenting an event of Shakespearean proportions this spring. A trilogy of plays featuring three English kings are being presented under the umbrella The History Plays.

The plays are being presented in repertory, meaning the same cast performs in each play, and since the plays are consecutive, many actors play the same roles from play to play. It's a massive undertaking, and the ultimate experience is to see all three plays consecutively in one day. The first opportunity to do that was on April 13, and there is one more chance on Saturday, May 18. Unfortunately, I couldn't see all three plays on April 13, so I saw Richard II at the Tuesday night preview before the opening marathon. But I'm a big fan of theater binging!

Richard II was the grandson of Edward III and the eighth king to descend from the Plantagenet line. After 200 years of almost unbroken rule, Richard considered himself divinely appointed to the throne. Costumer for all three plays Trevor Bowen dresses Tyler Michaels King as Richard in shimmering gold. King's appearance and performance make Richard seem otherworldly, as he considers himself to be. He asserts Richard's godliness with complete sincerity, and later in the play, is hauntingly distraught by his loss of power.
William Sturdivant (Henry Bolingbroke), Tyler Michaels King
(King Richard II), David Whalen (Thomas Mowbray)
and the cast of Richard II. Photo by Dan Norman.

As the play begins, Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Herford, a cousin of Richard's, accuses Thomas Mowbry, Duke of Norfolk, of treason, which Norfolk denies. Richard is asked to adjudicate the dispute and banishes Norfolk from England for life. Bolingbroke is banished for ten years, which the king in his mercy commutes to just (!) six years. Note that many of the characters have multiple names, but the program provides names and titles for reference.

Richard surrounds himself with sycophants who do not advise him well, and his reliance on his divinity makes him vulnerable. When his uncle John of Gaunt (played with marvelous gravity by the always-amazing Charity Jones) dies while Henry Bolingbroke is still banished, Richard seizes his uncle's property, the rightful inheritance of Henry.

That was a very bad idea, since Henry returns to England and raises an army against Richard, deposing and imprisoning him. He is then crowned Henry IV. William Sturdivant plays Henry Bolingbroke as a rather hotheaded young man who matures as he vies for the throne.

In Henry IV, the king is now facing threats against his reign from his former ally, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, and his son Harry Percy, also known as Hotspur. The elder Percy is played by Stephen Yoakam, who played Henry Bolingbroke/Henry IV when the Guthrie last did these plays in 1990. It's always a treat to see him on stage and of course he is wonderful. Hotspur is played by John Catron, who works a rebellious hairstyle and proves a formidable rival to the king.

Henry V cast. Photo by Dan Norman

Henry's other conflict in the play is with his son, Prince Henry, also called Hal, who spends his time with the denizens of the Boar's Head Tavern when his father would rather have him learning to take up the burden of the crown. Hal's companion in his misadventures is Sir John Falstaff, who provides a comic balance to the seriousness of the king. Jimmy Kieffer is absolutely delightful as Falstaff, and makes one wish that Hal could mature without losing his most amusing friend. Daniel José Molina plays Hal as the charming wastrel who eventually comes into his own to become King Henry V.
Daniel José Molina and the cast of Henry V. Photo by Dan Norman.

Henry V sees the now king facing a new challenge when he decides to expand his realm to France based on his Norman ancestors' previous control. Henry is supported by his brothers and uncle as well as soldiers including some of his old pals from the tavern. Sadly, these do not include Falstaff.

This play includes some narration by the players to set the scenes, asking the audience to imagine the battlefields and the conflicts, though there is also plenty of fighting on stage. The French court is imagined as having a different style than the English to humorous effect. When the fighting is done, the play takes a turn as Henry woos the French king's daughter Katherine, despite not knowing French and she knowing little English. It's a sweet scene that contrasts with what went before, and the narration comes back at the end to let us know that Henry's line of rulers ends with his son, Henry IV, about whom Shakespeare wrote four plays.

The cycle of plays shows an interesting progression of very different kings, from the divinely ordained Richard to the usurper Henry IV to the wild youth-turned thoughtful ruler Henry V. The performances are captivating, the language is beautifully spoken, and the entire experience is breathtaking.

All plays are impeccably directed by Joseph Haj, with simple but striking scenic design by Jan Chambers, wonderfully effective costume design by Trevor Bowen, and evocative lighting design by Heather Gilbert. Don't miss this chance to see the history plays at the Guthrie through May 25. It may be another 30 years before you get the chance.

A plug here for the podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat. The podcast spoke with director Joe Haj about the shows, and interviews with the actors will be posted shortly!

Also, if you are going to the shows, the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers will be at the matinee performance of Richard II on Saturday April 27. Join us for the theater's talkback and say hi to us after the show!

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Hecuba by Pangea World Theater

Pangea World Theater has opened their new production of Hecuba at the Southern Theater, playing April 5-21, and it is a beautiful, heart-rending play. 

Based on a play written by Euripides c. 424 BCE, the story starts just after the fall of the city of Troy to Greece following a years-long siege and the fateful arrival of the famed Trojan Horse. But you don't have to study Greek tragedy to understand this play.

Irish playwright Marina Carr uses the ancient tale to create a universal story of the horrors of war. Carr starts the play in the immediate aftermath of Troy's fall, following Hecuba, Queen of Troy, as she loses everything to the conquering King Agamemnon. The characters narrate their own story describing their surroundings and sometimes voicing other characters lines, which gives a glimpse into how the words are heard as well as spoken. Hecuba, surrounded by the bodies of her fallen sons, is brought even lower when she and her daughters are taken prisoner by Agamemnon, Odysseus, and their soldiers. 

As this ancient tale unfolds, the performers are seated to the sides of the stage, bearing witness to the events and contributing sound and movement when they are not part of the main action. The script's descriptions allow director Dipankar Mukherjee to stage the violence, killing, and sexual content of the story in a specifically unrealistic way. The words alone carry the weight of the violence. 

Hecuba (Suzanne Victoria Cross) with her daughters Polyxena
(Anne Guadagnino) and Cassandra (Ankita Ashrit).
All the performances were excellent, with Suzanne Victoria Cross showing us Hecuba's pride even as she and her women are held captive, starved, and worse. Matthew Saxe as Agamemnon is a ruthless antagonist who also sometimes questions the "rules of war" that he upholds. 

Hecuba's two daughters depicted in the play have very different relationships with their mother. Polyxena is young, but not as innocent as her mother believes. Anne Guadagnino plays the duality very well. Ankita Ashrit's Cassandra has a much more combative relationship with Hecuba. As told in mythology, Cassandra was gifted with the power of prophecy, but also a curse that no one would believe her. Even when she sees what will happen to them, Hecuba argues with her and disowns her, which allows us to see Cassandra's struggle. 

The action is underscored, and even introduced and capped off by the original music composed and played onstage by Bethany Lacktorin. The sounds, sometimes assisted by the cast, help to set the scenes and the conflicts played out on stage.

Although these characters' lives are influenced by the gods, they are not too different from those influenced by ideology in today's world. The horrors of their wars are not so different from our own. And in a way, Hecuba is any mother, watching helplessly as her children are taken from her. Carr's play brings the horrors of war from the ancient world into our own and is sadly relevant to our own time. 

Learn more about the play in Pangea's Performance Guide

For more insight into Pangea's work, check out the Twin Cities Theater Chat podcast we recorded with Production Manager (and Hecuba) Suzanne Victoria Cross and General Manager Adlyn Carreras.