Henry V: Making Imaginary Puissance

Hey there, folks! Dramaturge Keith Hock here, just checking in on you to see if you’re as excited for We Happy Few’s production of Henry V to open tonight as I am. I doubt you are, not because of any lack on enthusiasm on your part, but because I am SUPER EXCITED about this show. There’s a lot of great stuff going on in this show, which ironically makes it harder to write about. For one thing, some of it is so cool that I don’t want to spoil it before you get a chance to see it. I’ve been sitting on a couple different angles until after we open so I don’t ruin some of the magic that Kerry and the actors and the designers and the stage manager (really everyone in the company but me) worked so hard on. For another, we they have done such a good job of understanding and synthesizing the different concepts and aspects of this show together that it becomes impossible to talk about any one aspect without bringing up at least two more. But there IS one thing I can talk about that should get you all good and excited without spoiling your appetite for the show itself; the subterfuge inherent to any piece of art, and how theatre, Shakespeare, Henry V, and more particularly OUR Henry V, acknowledges and rejects that subterfuge.

All art is contrivance. It literally comes from the word “artifice”. Michelangelo can wax poetic about how all he did was see the angel in the marble and carve until he had been freed, but the reality is that he worked and worked and worked and worked and worked until he had mastered his medium, and then he projected his will onto a block of marble and turned it from a featureless lump of stone into a piece of art so magnificent as to bring a man to tears. He labored to conceal the work that goes into the creation of a masterpiece, the errors and missteps and practice, in order to make the art itself appear all the more miraculous. We use phrases like “suspension of disbelief” and “disappears into the role” and “transportive” and “verisimilitude” and “cinema verite” to describe the ways we conspire with artists to conceal the effort that goes into crafting a piece of art. It is a common practice in many forms of artistic endeavor to hide the seams and create the illusion that art sprang, fully-formed and perfect, from your genius, like Athena from Zeus’ brow.

Michelangelo Angel

Michelangelo’s Angel, 1494/95.

Common, but not universal. Live theatre by its very nature precludes the complete concealment of the craft that goes into it. You simply have to look up to see the light grid or closely at the actors to see their mic packs and safety pins. It will also vary from performance to performance, depending on, among other things, the energy of the audience, and from staging to staging, depending on the company and directorial vision. A sculpture or a movie or a book remains the same from its creation to its destruction, but a play is ephemeral and open to reinterpretation. It will never be the same performance twice, and so is noticeably “imperfect” as compared to static forms of art. Because it is impossible to conceal the nature of the illusion, many playwrights and directors address this issue with my favorite device: they lean into it. They acknowledge the illusion and allow it to guide them. Instead of being limited by attempting to hide the seams, they make the seams an integral part of the final design.

Shakespeare in particular was no stranger to exposing the artifice of his plays. His characters routinely use theatrical metaphors and allusions to discuss identity and illusion. It was a favorite device of his to insert another play into his own works, turning his characters into actors and audience and reminding his actual audience that they, too, were watching a play. It shows up in Midsummer and Hamlet but was perhaps pursued the most aggressively in the seldom-performed prologue to The Taming of the Shrew, where con man Christopher Sly is conned in his turn into…being a rich man? Watching a play? (There’s a reason people don’t usually include the Kit Sly framing device). Nonsensicality of the scene notwithstanding, it very aggressively calls out the nature of the theatrical illusion, and all but calls the actors con artists and their audience marks.

But Henry V does it one better, though in a more forgiving manner. The text openly acknowledges its craft in its masterful Prologue. By encouraging his audience to see the stage for what it is, a “wooden O” peopled by a handful of “crookèd figures” who “strut and fret their hour upon…” [Oops. Wrong play. -KH]. By entreating the Muse of Fire, the Chorus immediately signals the audience to recall where they are and what they are doing. Though the text of the scene may beg the audience’s forgiveness for not being princes and dukes on a French battlefield, its actual purpose is the opposite. It would be easy for a king to act like a king, but for an actor to create that same grandeur? To bring an audience to tears over an imagined death? Now that takes skill. Calling out the illusion draws attention to the craft with which it is created.

SONY DSC

From We Happy Few’s Henry V, 2017. Foreground Kiernan McGowan. Background L-R Robert Pike, Riley Bartlebaugh, Josh Adams, Raven Bonniwell, Wyckham Avery, Niusha Nawab. Photo by Tori Boutin.

Which, is of, course, where we come in. Shakespeare has issued this challenge to everyone who would stage this play: match my expectations and live up to the Chorus’ promise to the audience. I certainly believe that we have done so, but it is not my place to judge my own company’s skill. It’s yours. We open tonight, why don’t you come see if we accomplished our goal?

Henry IV: Theatrical Prequel

Happy one month into the New Year, Faithful Readers!

I’m sorry I missed you for our first performance a couple weeks ago, when we brought A Midnight Dreary, our immersive Poe-and-alcohol performance, back to DC in mid-January. I had some personal stuff happening in my Real World Life that was occupying most of my time and I figured you all could go without me waxing rhapsodic about horror for another 1500 words. And it turns out I was right, because we sold out that performance! Thank you all for coming to that! Sometime I’ll share with you all yet more of the thoughts I have on that subject. But that’s a blog post for another time. Today I want need to talk to you about the reading of Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, that we’re doing tonight, free of charge, at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop!

We’re reading Henry IV tonight because we’re performing Henry V in April, and Henry V, in case the Roman numeral at the end of the title didn’t give it away, is that rarity in theatre; a sequel. While we are used to sequels in our movies and books and video games, it is unusual to see playwrights doing them. Tennessee Williams didn’t follow up the success of The Glass Menagerie with Menagerie 2: Broken Glass, Broken Dreams. Eugene O’Neill foolishly declined to pen the logical successor to his masterpiece with Long Night’s Journey into Day. There was no The Importance of Being Frank from Wilde, no Rumors 2: Electric Boogaloo from Simon. And Arthur Miller had a bad habit of ensuring that his plays could not be followed by having his characters die at the end; there could be no Life of a Salesman or 2 Fast 2 Crucible. Most playwrights seem opposed to following their characters across multiple stories and adventures.

rambo

I can’t imagine why.

There is a theatrical reason for this. The Aristotelian Unities insist that plays should be structured with uniformity of action, uniformity of time, and uniformity of place; that is to say, they should be about one thing, happen in one day, and take place in one location. We have largely thrown those last two restrictions out by now, 2500 years after Aristotle said them, but we generally abide by the first rule (not least because it is the rule most open to interpretation). Plays tend to follow one problem from its inception to its conclusion. If there is room for a sequel in a play, it suggests that there are loose ends floating around, and in order for a story to be satisfying (cathartic, as Aristotle would describe it) it should have resolved itself by the time the play ends.

This is not to say that theatrical sequels or series are unheard-of or impossible, though. Just unusual. Angels in America is a two-part play. So is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which also happens to be a cross-platform sequel to a book series, making it a rare and unstable Doppelzequel. The Greek tragedians almost uniformly organized their plays into cycles of three tragedies and one comical satyr play, and these tetralogies often focused on the same characters, such as Orestes or Prometheus, or at least a continuous story, such as the Curse of Laius (these examples are also all intended to be viewed back-to-back). August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle springs to mind, as does Brian Friel’s setting of Ballybeg, as interconnected narratives; not sequels per se, but inhabiting the same universe and populated by the same characters. Charles Mee’s Summertime and Wintertime overlap a few characters and a setting while telling very different stories. Alan Ayckbourn’s very odd House & Garden exists as a single play happening simultaneously in adjoining theatres, which is a stretch as far as my sequel/series theme goes but is so goddamn weird I never pass up an opportunity to mention it.

And then, of course, there was Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies, one spin-off, and a lost sequel, all but the last circling around the same period and family. The lost sequel, of course, is Love’s Labours Won, an alleged follow-up to Love’s Labours Lost. Since all we have of …Won is the title, there is room for disagreement on whether it was actually a sequel, an alternate name for a different play, or a completely unrelated story, but the structure of …Lost certainly suggests room for a sequel. The spin-off is The Merry Wives of Windsor, a light comedy following the adventures of fat idiot knight Sir Falstaff, bosom friend of Prince Hal in Henry IV. And the tetralogies are a series of historical plays during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses. Confusingly, these series are referred to as the Henriads even through the cycle begins with Richard II and ends with Richard III. More confusingly, there are eight plays in the series but the plays are only about five kings; Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, the plays for IV and VI being broken into two and three parts, respectively. And most confusingly of all, the Second Henriad was written first and the First Henriad second, like the Star Wars movies.

house-of-plantageneet

I don’t know, it doesn’t seem THAT confusing.

I’ll give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt on the difficulties and pitfalls and artistic risks inherent to theatrical sequels because, well, he’s Shakespeare. He does as he pleases. He also gets a pass because most of them are histories, and therefore based on real events. Shakespeare didn’t create the Wars of the Roses, they actually happened. It may not be convenient to us as an audience for the life, death, and legacy of Henry VI to be broken into three parts on stage, but a lot of stuff happened because of him, stuff that couldn’t be adequately expressed, in Shakespeare’s mind, in a single play. The founding of the House of Lancaster, their consolidation of power, and their greatest triumph under Henry V is too complex a story to be told in one sitting, so Shakespeare broke into pieces, choosing to hew more closely to the narrative itself than to the conventions of theatre.

Which brings us to tonight, where we explore a piece of that story. As I mentioned before, we will be performing the second and third pieces of the First Henriad, Henry IV, parts 1 & 2, condensed in true We Happy Few fashion into a single two-hour performance by Cofounder-in-Exile Hannah Todd. It is named after King Henry IV, and happens predominantly during his reign, but it in actuality is mostly about Prince Hal, the soon-to-be King Henry V, and his growth from a callow playboy in the company of ne’er-do-wells to a noble knight and worthy heir to the throne. Since Henry V explores, in part, Henry’s nobility in light of his checkered past we figured a reading of this play would be a good way to introduce that character and his erstwhile companions to the audience. Plus its another opportunity for you to spend some quality time with the We Happy Few team, for free! Who could pass up such an opportunity? I hope you can make it to CHAW tonight, by 7:30PM, to see it!

Capulets vs. Montagues

We Happy Few’s ROMEO AND JULIET opened last night! With the momentum gained from completing the first show, we’ll keep giving great performances so be sure to get a ticket! There are 8 shows remaining in our 2nd annual appearance at the Capital Fringe Festival.

In celebration of starting performances, we present to you another glimpse at the inner workings of the show. This time, the cast talks about the feud between the Capulet and Montague families, including some characters’ views on the feud and even our guess at how the feud began in the first place. Enjoy!

Lady Parts

If you’ve read anything we’ve written about the show to date, you already know that we’re emphasizing gender roles in our upcoming production of ROMEO AND JULIET at this year’s Capital Fringe Festival. Below is the list of actors and their roles, including the ways that we’ve used creative double-, triple-, and even quadruple-casting.

Nathan James Bennett: Nurse & Tybalt

Raven Bonniwell: Juliet

Chris Dinolfo: Lady Capulet, Peter, Apothecary, & Gregory

Chris Genebach: Capulet, Friar John & Sampson

Sean Hudock: Romeo

Kiernan McGowan: Benvolio & Paris

Paul Reisman: Friar Lawrence, Montague, & Abraham

William Vaughan: Mercutio & Prince

Juliet is the only female character being played by a woman. We’re attempting to emphasize the male-dominated world by which Juliet is surrounded by having all of the other women characters, namely the Nurse and Lady Capulet, also played by men. That is to say, these other women have already become a part of the society dictated by the wills of men in the world of the play.

It is not our intention to make a parody of the women characters, which is the really the opposite of the point we’re trying to make. We definitely won’t be giving them fake boobs (as much as they might want them). We will, however, be attempting to show how Juliet and her Romeo begin to break out of the boundaries set by this masculine, patriarchal society as they break traditional Capulet and Montague rules. But of course, that forward motion comes to a screeching halt at the end of the play for obvious reasons. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, definitely go read the play.

Our ROMEO AND JULIET is Underway!

We Happy Few is working hard to bring you a great production of ROMEO AND JULIET as part of this summer’s Capital Fringe Festival. Just this week we had our first read through with the cast and a production meeting. Great ideas abound! Check back with us here for more information about the show as it’s finalized.

Tickets for ROMEO AND JULIET (and all other Fringe shows, for that matter) will be on sale June 17th! There are two ways to get your tickets: through the Fringe box office or through a link we’ll provide right here when the time comes. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for interesting tidbits.

While we can’t part with too many secrets yet, here’s the cast list to satiate your curiosity for now: Nathan James Bennet*, Raven Bonniwell, Chris Dinolfo*, Chris Genebach*, Sean Hudock*, Kiernan McGowan, Paul Reisman*, and William Vaughan.

*Equity Actors are appearing under an exclusive arrangement with Actors’ Equity Association.

 

 

Let’s Get Physical

At our rehearsals for THE TEMPEST, it’s pretty obvious that there’s something special going on. There are equal parts Shakespeare, music, movement, and innovation. Best combo ever. There’s a certain amount of athleticism lent by our actors which allows us to figuratively and literally build the world of the show. We see the island as a living, breathing component of the play.

It’s difficult to explain what we mean by “movement-based” in describing the show. You can get a better idea by seeing it for yourself! But for now, we’ll do the best we can to tell you what to expect.  Our ensemble of actors comes to rehearsal in athletic wear, ready to climb, jump, fall, roll, crouch, perch, slide, and slink. We Happy Few is all about the collaborative environment of rehearsals to explore the meaning behind Shakespeare’s words and the almost endless staging possibilities. To get our winning combination of movement, we start with some gymnastics and stretching, add a pinch of pretzel,  a dash of dance, a hint of contortionism, and a bunch of the buddy system (times 3 or 4 or 5 or 6).

For example, in Act 2 Scene 2, there are so many ways that Caliban can be introduced to “celestial liquor” by Stephano and Trinculo. The cast worked with director Hannah Todd and movement director Jacob Janssen to work through a few possible ways to incorporate all the dialogue, not one but TWO original songs, Caliban’s character-specific stylized movement, and even a few slapstick funny moments. There’s a lot of thought jam-packed into every gesture and step. Each scene was crowd-sourced in a sense, allowing the actors to interpret what might be a natural progression for their character based on the tone of the scene. Most scenes are staged in multiple ways before a final decision is made on the blocking. While it makes a lot of work for our cast and crew, it also means that our audience will see the best possible variation of the show, which is what we aim for!

We’re creating the magic of the island through the movement of our bodies in this production of THE TEMPEST, and it wouldn’t be magic unless we kept a few secrets to ourselves. Want to find out what they are? Then get your tickets now! THE TEMPEST opens tomorrow night and runs through May 12. You have just 9 opportunities to see this show, and you definitely won’t want to miss it.