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!