Friday, February 03, 2017

Powerful women play historical kings at Seattle Shakespeare Co.

Some of the cast of Bring Down the House (John Ulman)
Bring Down the House
Seattle Shakespeare Company
Through March 12, 2017

A great gathering of women is happening in the Armory Theatre where Seattle Shakespeare Company has joined with upstart crow collective to present a massive two-part Shakespearian epic! Why is it a gathering of women? Because all the actors in this play are women, most playing male roles!

Bring Down the House is actually an adaptation of Shakespeare’s trilogy about Henry VI (Henry VI, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). It’s created in two parts which you can choose to see either separately or both in one day. Throne of Treachery opened last week and Crusade of Chaos opens Friday, February 3. Director Rosa Joshi and upstart member Kate Wisniewski (who plays Queen Margaret) pared down these three long plays into a fairly nimble two-parter which speeds along at a break-neck pace.

While the plays are “historical,” they are not necessarily always accurate, and clearly depend on theatricalities and tensions. Given that, it is still a good way to learn about the period of The War of the Roses (1455-87), a period of turmoil over who deserved the English crown.

In Part 1 of Bring Down the House, a short, vivid section of exposition shows how virtually the entire court of Henry V – who has just suddenly died at the beginning of the play – was made up of nobles who are all cousins! Joshi’s direction uses specificity and focused lighting to help us understand those complexities as the court divides into those who choose red roses (the House of Lancaster) and those who chose white (the House of York).

What was unfortunate for England is that the War of the Roses was actually just a moment past The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) which was mostly about England trying to take over France. Of course, you might guess that this war was also fought among cousins, since nobles of France has married English and vice versa. The clear aim and difficulty was in securing power and money.

Part 1 focuses on Henry VI, who throws off the yoke of his uncle Protector, marries a French woman, Margaret, who uses her wiles to control him, and loses France back to the French. Under his nose, his noble cousins spar to control him and overthrow the power of each other.

Part 2, not yet seen, promises the rise of York, who claims the throne over Henry because York is descended from an older brother in the line of succession that brought Henry to the crown. After all, the rule said older brothers and their offspring were supposed to get crowned first.

The thrill of the production is really due to all the strong, powerful women who strut and proclaim and connive and scheme. The strong cast is full of the talent of our city.

Betsy Schwartz plays a barely capable Henry VI with conviction and pathos, but allows us to laugh at his naivety. Marianne Owen plays Protector Humphrey, who is betrayed for his loyalty to Henry VI to get him out of the way, with strength and purity. Mari Nelson strides masterfully in the boots of York.

There are just too many good actors to name, but a stand out in Part 1 was Sunam Ellis who inhabits a female role, Eleanor, the wife of Humphrey, who gets too big for her britches and is brought down for her treachery. Certainly, Part 2 will bring other such key moments and actors.

Joshi, as director of upstart crow, knows Shakespeare and is a master director. You just know you’re in good hands when you experience how she stages a play, visually and rhythmically. She is aided by a solid lighting design by Geoff Korf and sound design by Robertson Witmer. An almost bare set with matching wooden chairs and interlocking table by Shawn Ketchum Johnson keep the movements taut.

This is a refreshing and spirited set of productions and if you like Shakespeare, or history, or both, you will definitely enjoy these plays. It’s not a bad idea to bone up on the exact plots of all three plays before you come, though. Especially because of this compression, there are a lot of confusing relationships.

For more information, go to www.seattleshakepeare.org or call 206-733-8222.