Producing Shakespeare’s three-play cycle in repertory is an epic endeavor for any theater company. Trinity Rep’s presentation of the history plays that make up “The Henriad” says as much about the stewardship of artistic director Oskar Eustis (a leading contender for the top job at Off Broadway’s Public Theater) as it does about the leadership of Shakespeare’s kings. It demonstrates a bold willingness to think big, loyalty to the resident company of actors and the vision to develop future generations of actors, audiences and directors with theater that illuminates and inspires.
Audience members may be shouting “once more unto the breach” as they take on the eight-hour theatrical triptych. But in the end they will be rewarded with productions that, despite some unevenness of casting and execution, bridge the divide of centuries, making Shakespeare’s language, themes and characters ring true for today.
The works become increasingly relevant as they follow the chronology of kings from 1398 to 1413. “Richard II” is traditionally costumed and solidly staged (save for a few over-the-top bloody flourishes) by Kevin Moriarty. Amanda Dehnert directs “Henry IV” (combining both parts) in a rousing, fourth-wall-breaking way. Eustis stages “Henry V” in contemporary dress and slam-dunks the cycle’s themes and issues so pertinent in this election year: a country divided, legitimacy of leadership, a wrong-headed foreign war, rulers who think God is on their side and a son’s attempt to rise to his father’s expectations.
Sharing the same space, design team and acting company, three directors each take a play and make it their own, while remaining true to the themes of the whole. All take advantage of every inch of the modest, horizontal theater and Michael McGarty’s raw and gritty set, which suits the scruffy times and the rages of war; every impossible corner is creatively lit by John Ambrosone.
The directors stage their works with a hungry vitality that never lets the energy or action flag, but they also allow a quiet intimacy that makes “The Henriad” as personal as a confessional. However, the cast of 16 (10 company members and six third-year students from the theater’s MFA program at Brown U.) is stretched thin. A few more players would have avoided the casting of good actors in ill-suited parts. But there are many admirable perfs that mine the company’s depth of experience, sense of ensemble and assuredness of turf.
In “Richard II,” Brian McEleney plays the monarch who finds his inner poet when he loses his crown. (He is also heartbreaking as the simpleton Bardolph in the later plays.) McEleney may be old for the role of the inept, petulant and derelict child-king whose foolishness starts the chain of events that shatter a kingdom for generations. But even when Richard is at his most foppish and delusional, McEleney has a divine royal bearing, whether he is being charming, wicked or lyrical.
Timothy Crowe plays de facto usurper Bolingbroke with a lucid confidence and enigmatic cunning; in “Henry IV” he becomes increasingly guilt-ridden and tragic. Anne Scurria does some gender-bending with a thoroughly believable John of Gaunt and plays the Chorus as her persuasive self in “Henry V.”
In associate artistic director Dehnert’s brash and at times breathtaking staging of “Henry IV,” the actors surround the stage, announce the action and help to keep the comings and goings of the many characters as clear and vital as possible. (She also has some anachronistic fun: Among the conceits is playfully turning Falstaff into Darth Vader to Prince Hal’s Luke Skywalker in a moment of revelry.)
Fred Sullivan Jr. makes Falstaff robust, sly, life-affirming, a man of the moment — but no fool, at least until the end, when he is a heartbroken figure dissolving into grief. It is a perf wholly earned, not just over a night but over a career.
William Damkoehler and Joanna Cole have fine respective turns as the Earl of Northumberland and Peto, the Boy.
But it is Stephen Thorne’s Prince Hal who intrigues the most as he evolves from wayward son into a royal force, taking his shaky mandate to extremes in “Henry V.” The boyish-looking Thorne gives a carefully calibrated perf, transitioning from wastrel prince to cool prodigal son, from soldier king with his mission accomplished to sensitive suitor wooing the enemy’s princess.
Craig Handel’s fight choreography in both “Henry” plays is stylistic, daring and exciting.
Eustis’ “Henry V” takes the most risks, with mixed results. The concept of King Henry as surrogate president, listening to his manipulative advisers as they steer him to a tenuously justifiable war, resonates well, as do some contemporary touches such as the soldiers singing “Here Comes the Sun” on the eve of battle. But other flourishes overreach, as when the Chorus throws glitter confetti in the audience at play’s end.
Eustis is also less successful in coming to terms with the French characters and their point of view. (Mauro Hantman, so good as the noble and fiery Hotspur, comes up clueless as the Dauphin.) Still, at the end of the day, and night, and “The Henriad,” there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment as well as completion.
The long-planned project (it began in workshop in 1999) is a bittersweet one on many levels. In the declining days of resident acting companies in U.S. theaters, this might be one of the last great turns, celebrating an ensemble of longtime performers — some of whom have been at the theater since the late 1960s — while nurturing new young talent. On another level, it marks a significant achievement for an artistic director of distinction.