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BWW Review: Let Us Sit and Tell Sad Stories of THE DEATH OF KINGS

Irwin Appel has created something tremendous with Death of Kings. An adaptation of eight of Shakespeare's history plays, Death of Kings condenses the bloody saga of civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York, both vying for power of the English crown, into five hours of pulsating, theatrical turmoil. Both adapter and Director, Appel has succeeded in bringing the pace and intrigue of more modern styles of episodic storytelling to Death of Kings. Broken into two parts and performed in cycle, Death of Kings weaves Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 and 2), Henry V, Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III, into a production featuring the most potent aspects of the War of the Roses. These eight plays are distilled into a fast-moving onslaught of conflict and mayhem that ceaselessly emphasizes the play's theme: the succession of royal lineage via death, murder, and dethronement. Come, Appel invites the audience: Let us sit and tell sad stories about the death of kings.

Photo by David Bazemore

Part One, I Come But For Mine Own, features a rugged and ruthless Jeff Mills as the usurper Henry, who takes the crown for the royal House of Lancaster. He maintains his power against rebel factions, and, after finally corralling his oft-partying son, Prince Hal (Cameron Gray), into the fray, has a successful military campaign in France that earns land and power across the channel for Hal, now King Henry V.

Part Two of Death of Kings, The White Rose and The Red, begins with the reign of young King Henry VI (Anastasia McCommon), a gentle, pious youth without the steely ambition of his grandfather, Henry IV, or the valiant warrior's disposition of his father, Henry V. Henry VI is unable to maintain stability in the realm, and the French resistance, lead by Joan of Arc (Joré Aaron), undermines the already crumbling English presence in France. A peace treaty with France sees the king married to Margaret of Anjou (Verenice Zuniga), but conquered lands are lost in the deal. This loss of territory angers the Duke of York (Brian Harwell) to rebellion, and he instigates the War of the Roses by declaring himself rightful heir to the throne. Thus begins decades of power struggle and mêlée between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.

Photo by David Bazemore

The story plays out like a historical fiction adventure series, yet is based in truth (though Shakespeare surely took creative liberty with his characterization of this bloody period in English history--there are, after all, many nuances that transform a good story into a good story that works well on stage. There's also the possibility of artistic choices made for political purpose; the monarchy of the time certainly had an opinion about how the history of their kingdom should be told). It's a convoluted period in England's history in which power is transferred between the Lancasters and Yorks several times. This see-saw of supremacy can be somewhat unapparent for audiences without knowledge of the timeline, especially those viewers unaccustomed to "Shake-speak". (As Appel points out, almost everyone in these plays is named Henry, Richard, or Edward.) While Appel's production utilizes language from Shakespeare's original works, Death of Kings' abridged version of events focuses only on the most immediate aspects of the conflict. Lengthy scenes of extraneous filigree that add nuance to the plays when performed in full have been removed--they needn't be present for this conceptual rendering of the War of Roses. Death of Kings is, in a way, a highlight reel of this bloodstained era; it's a production of consistent rising action and persistent deception and disloyalty.

Death of Kings is a sleek, modern experience of the War of the Roses, made resplendent with excellent production quality and performances. Minimalist sets keep focus on performance--the only real set piece is the throne, which is handled, caressed, and dragged about the stage by each character bent on wielding the power it represents. Lighting (by Vickie Scott) in bold, solid colors gave the stage (and the conflict) a sense of boundlessness--battlefields seemed vast, and castle halls seemed infinite. Jim Connolly, a one-man band, provided music and sound effects that fashioned everything from the thunderous pounding of charging soldiers, to the vacant echoes of ghostly voices.

In a play so heavily steeped in violence, excellent fight choreography is imperative. The unique and rough-hewn grace of fight direction (by Jeff Mills) allowed for ferocious swordplay and brutal man-to-man combat. Naked Shakes has always focused their artistic energy on performance and Shakespeare's language rather than distracting effects and dressing; true to this philosophy, Death of Kings rendered several striking moments of extreme violence with little more than wooden poles and red gloves. Moments such as the burning of Joan of Arc and York's beheading were captured with visual poetry and raw physicality.

Death of Kings featured an impressive cast, including Anne Torsiglieri as the bawdy Falstaff. Torsiglieri plays old, fat Falstaff with commitment to the character's repulsive physical nature, yet Torsiglieri's personal delicacy balanced the raw, disgusting aspects of Falstaff with a sense of a true loyalty to Hal. Joe Caldwell as Talbot and Cameron Gray as Henry V embodied valiant medieval warriors; Anastasia McCammon was well cast as the meek and well meaning, but ultimately ineffective King Henry VI; and Brian Harwell is both diabolical and proud as the ambitious Duke of York. Joré Aaron, as Joan of Arc, is light on her feet as a soldier infused with the benediction of the almighty, but unyielding and flinty as the young mademoiselle leading the French Resistance.

Photo by David Bazemore

I admit to harboring a special favoritism for Richard III as one of the most base and dangerous characters in Shakespeare's works, and having seen a brilliant performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in recent years, I was concerned that I'd never be able to love another Richard--until Jeremy Scharf rolled his hunched shoulder into battle, and danced fleetly through skirmishes despite Richard's contorted, misshapen leg. Scharf's compelling depiction of Richard proved sensual and enticing despite physical afflictions, and his scenes had a quality of horrible beauty as he, with ghastly grins of victory, kept the death toll on the rise. At the play's open, Richard laughs in such prolonged, triumphant frenzy at the body of a slain soldier that his father must silence him with a clang of the blade. In that moment we see the sociopathic bliss within the festering sore of Richard's character; Scharf embodies a Richard who can both seethe and soothe with the same words--a man with undeniable charisma and unyielding absence of empathy.

For those who appreciate Shakespeare's form and style, Death of Kings is a beguiling, boiled-down reworking of the history plays that eliminates cumbersome details. It also serves as an appropriate introduction to the history plays to those less familiar with the works. Let us sit and tell sad stories of the death of kings--so says Charles Grant, a luxurious and haunting Richard II, in epilogue. He places the crown back upon his head and the saga ends where it began in Part I. Appel's work, clearly a labor of passion, is a brilliant version of Shakespeare's history of England; one that reminds us why Shakespeare is, to this day, still lauded as one of the finest theatrical storytellers of the age.


Death of Kings, Parts 1 and 2
Adapted and Directed by Irwin Appel
Running through this weekend! March 5 and 6:
Part 1 @ 2:00pm; Part 2 @ 7:30pm
Hatlan Theatre, UCSB

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