Sunday, April 14, 2024

The History Plays: "Richard II," "Henry IV," and "Henry V" in rep at the Guthrie Theater

Once in a lifetime, if you're lucky, you'll have a chance to experience an epic theater event at your home town theater, which just happens to be one of the best respected and most highly acclaimed regional theaters in the land. That was April 13, 2024, a day I will never forget, a day in which I consumed more theater than I ever have in a single day. Some 8 1/2 hours of theater, more than seeing Tony Kushner's epic two-part Angels in America on Broadway, more than the longest day at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Sometimes known as The Henriad, Shakespeare's Richard IIHenry IV (two plays here condensed into one), and Henry V tell the stories of three English kings in the late 14th and early 15th Centuries. But this was not some boring slog through ancient history and archaic language. It was a living, breathing, dynamic, compelling, thrilling, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping, laugh-inducing, thoroughly engaging binge-watch of some of the best plays in the English cannon, brought to life by some of our best theater artists from the Twin Cities and around the country. Each play has a somewhat different tone or look or feel, but all are cut from the same cloth so that when knit together, they form a whole much grander than the sum of its parts. If you have the financial means and physical stamina to do so, I highly recommend attending the one remaining marathon day on May 18. It's a rare shared community experience, with artists and patrons joining their energies together for some 14 hours in the same space. Or you can take in the trilogy in a more reasonable manner - see all three plays in a weekend, or more spread out over time. But if you're a #TCTheater fan (and if you're not, why are you reading this blog?), see it you must. This is something we'll be talking about for generations. Click here for details and tickets.

Sir Tyrone Guthrie's great experiment in American regional theater began in 1963 as a repertory theater. Eventually it morphed into what we know today, with plays presented singly over a season, and only occasional forays into the world of rep. One of those was these History Plays produced in the summer of 1990 (as a high school student who wasn't that into Shakespeare, I was unaware). An actor in that company, Joseph Haj, became the Guthrie's Artistic Director in 2015, and was determined to bring repertory theater, particularly this epic trilogy, back to the Guthrie. One pandemic postponement and nine years later, he's done it, and with huge success. I had the pleasure of interviewing Joe with my fellow theater blogger Rob from The Stages of Minnesota for our podcast Twin Cities Theater Chat (TCTC), and we also had the great privilege of watching him work during tech week of Richard II. His unending passion for and knowledge of Shakespeare in general and these plays in particular fueled this endeavor. From the outside at least, he is as great a leader as Henry V in guiding and inspiring and collaborating with this incredible team of artists and craftspeople, all of whose talents and skills were needed to steer this great ship into the harbor.

I'm not going to recap the complicated plotlines and interrelated characters of these plays, because honestly reading it is challenging. But because I always like to do the extra credit, I did read all four plays (specifically the No Fear Shakespeare versions available at the Guthrie book store), and watch the 2012 British TV adaptation The Hollow Crown. I wanted to put myself in the best position to get the most out of this. You could do that, or read the Wiki summary, or for more on the history upon which Shakespeare's (and many other) historical fiction is based, I highly recommend Crown & Sceptre: A New History of the British Monarchy, from William the Conqueror to Charles III. Or you could just sit back and let the story wash over you, without too much concern for historical facts and dates. Here's the general gist of the overarching story: Richard II and Henry IV are cousins competing for the crown inherited from their grandfather Edward III, one of the greatest and longest-reigning monarchs in English history, to which neither can quite live up. But maybe there's hope in Henry's son Prince Hal, who, despite his wayward youth, eventually becomes the great, if short-lived, warrior king Henry V.

the court of Richard II (photo by Dan Norman)
Each play begins with the titular king picking up the crown from the middle of the thrust stage, that looks more than a little like the one ring to rule them all (and is similarly dangerous to its bearer), and taking his seat on the throne. Richard II, billed as "a king becomes a man," is the only one of Shakespeare's plays written entirely in verse. As a result, it has a more lyrical quality, and this play is an emotional one, kind of an indie film feel. I somehow felt sympathetic towards Richard, deposed by his cousin, even though he kind of deserved it. Henry IV is less about the titular king than his son Prince Hal, as "a man becomes a king." With more comedy and action, and some thrilling fight scenes, this is the summer blockbuster. In the conclusion Henry V, "a king becomes a hero." Like a superhero origin story, we watch the final transformation of our Harry into the inspiring leader who stakes his rightful (?) claim on France. On the surface these plays are all about war (as is the history of the British monarchy) - and what was it all for? All of Henry's hard-won battles come to naught in the subsequent years after our story ends. But on a deeper level they're about family, legacy, leadership, community, and brotherhood (or whatever the non-gendered equivalent of that is).

the Henrys (William Sturdivant and Daniel José Molina)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Our three kings are the great leaders of this troupe (watch for an upcoming interview with them on TCTC). #TCTheater favorite Tyler Michaels King is a lovely Richard II, a little odd, a little full of himself, a little too sure of his divine right. Watching him reclaim his humanity, with a couple of epic monologues, is a treat. Tyler passes the crown (literally) to William Sturdivant, a frequent performer with Great River Shakespeare Festival (Minnesota's own Shakespeare rep company, performing in Winona every summer) and in the Twin Cities. He believably takes Henry IV from the confident usurper in Part 1 to the weary monarch of Part 2, feeling guilt over how he came to the crown and wondering what will become of it when he's gone, with an epic and emotional death scene (spoiler alert). The other end of that emotional death scene is played by Daniel José Molina, newcomer to the Twin Cities but not to the role of Prince Hal. He fully embodies the charming and careless youth, but with an undercurrent of lurking responsibility he knows is in his future. We watch him take on that mantle bit by bit, until by the end of Part 2 (the longest of the three plays at nearly three hours) he's almost unrecognizable as he becomes the king. In Part 3 he's every bit the hero, with an inspiring battle speech that makes me think Tolkien (and/or Jackson) borrowed from it for Aragorn's "not this day" speech.

Falstaff, Prince Hal, and friends at the tavern (photo by Dan Norman)
This trilogy could not be in better hands than these three actors, but they get much support from the other 23 actors in this talented company, all but 2 of whom appear in all three plays, sometimes as the same character, sometimes as different characters. I cannot possibly mention them all, but each one of them brings their best to every play, every role, every moment. The double, triple, quadruple casting is very thoughtfully done, creating some fun parallels and Easter eggs. Highlights include the fierce John Catron as Hal's frenemey Henry Percy aka Hotspur, often considered the plum role of Henry IV, which he more than makes the most of; Jimmy Kieffer as the larger-than-life Falstaff who improbably is only in one of the three plays, but this delightful rogue makes a lasting impression; Charity Jones in a number of roles typically played by men (because let's face it, there aren't really any great roles for women in these plays); Tracey Maloney as Richard's loyal cousin and Hotspur's just-as-fierce wife; Dustin Bronson as a petulant Dauphin of France; David Whalen as the Scottish ax-wielding warrior Douglas and the goof Pistol; Jasmine Bracey stealing scenes as the Duchess of York, the French ambassador, and more; Erin Mackey as the boy Davy and the French princess (speaking in both bad and excellent French); and last but not least, Henry IV from the 1990 History Plays, the great Stephen Yoakam, as Henry Percy Sr. and Fluellen.

King Henry V (Daniel José Molina) inspires the troops
(photo by Dan Norman)
The design team has created an impressive playground for this story and these actors. Utilizing the turntable and donut left over from A Christmas Carol, the stunning set (designed by Jan Chambers, longtime collaborate of Joe Haj, interview coming soon on TCTC) is comprised of a massive throne under three Gothic arches, set amidst steel scaffolding, with multiple levels and seeming endless configurations. Set pieces for the tavern or throne room glide out on the donut or up from the trap door; sometimes even characters glide into the scene. Heather Gilbert's lighting design tells us where to look and sets the tone. Trevor Bowen's gorgeous costumes range from the medieval tunics and boots and gowns of the English court, to the whimsical patchwork of the tavern-dwellers, to the chain mail of the armies (if sometimes lacking in sleeves), to the chic blue-toned suits of the French court. Jack Herrick's original compositions, with sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman, create a soundscape that's different for each play, yet continuous, with a few moments of singing by this lovely cast.

Friends, it's only nine hours since this epic experience concluded, and somehow I've reached the end of this review, although I know I could write a few hundred or thousand more words. I hope I've convinced you that even if you think you don't like Shakespeare, this is an experience not to be missed, and makes Shakespeare accessible and relatable and real. Any one of these plays is complete and fulfilling on its own, but the beauty of seeing all three is drawing connections between them and watching the full story play out and pay off in very satisfying ways.

We few, we happy few, we band of theater-makers and theater-goers who shared a space of collective imagination for one epic, exhausting, fulfilling, yet too short day. During the day I said to my friends - why don't they do this every Saturday? The following morning after about four hours of sleep (morning people don't know the meaning of sleeping in), with a foggy brain and a scratchy throat, I understand why this cannot be a regular event. It's a singular and special event, that if you're lucky, happens once in a lifetime. 

UPDATE: join the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers for the matinee of Richard II on April 27 and stay for a talkback hosted by the Guthrie, after which we will retire to the Target Lounge for a more informal conversation. Use code TCBLOG for 20% off that performance, or simply click here.