The yin and yang of Shakespeare Theatre Company's 'Henry V' and 'Richard II'
By Celia Wren
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
How apt that, in a simple but effective gambit in director David Muse's "Henry V," the seminal battle of Agincourt rampages around us in darkness. The eponymous king (Michael Hayden) has already once-more-unto-the-breach-ed it through Harfleur and has roamed anonymously through his new camp, bucking up his troops. Now, in Sidney Harman Hall, the lights extinguish, and sounds of galloping horses and clashing metal thunder through the blackness.
In a sense, the moment sums up the insight of both this staging and Michael Kahn's "Richard II," running in repertory with it: These two forceful, pellucid and hugely absorbing productions -- devised by the Shakespeare Theatre Company as explorations of leadership -- show greatness to be the partner of concealment, discretion and rigorously self-denying showmanship.
Those are the qualities whose absence and presence distinguish the comparably tightly wound, yin-and-yang monarchs portrayed by the enthralling Hayden. Here's his weak king, Richard, a vain neurotic who looks as if he's prone to migraines and who freely displays his flaws and tics -- tetchiness, rashness, mood swings, self-absorption. There, by contrast, is the bottled-up, brooding Henry, who only occasionally lets his guard down, allowing us to see that his regal discipline is simply a virtuoso performance.
The showiness-asceticism split also turns up in the design of the productions, which unfurl on, and in front of, semi-ruined stone fortifications -- the dilapidation hinting at the human cost of the wars waged by Richard, Henry and their successors. (Lee Savage is the set designer for both productions.) Glinting in front of this somber backdrop, when you take your seat for "Richard II," is a gold throne whose decadent gleam soon finds a match in Richard's puff-sleeved robe and matching gloves. (Jennifer Moeller is costume designer.) The sovereign's over-the-top fashion sense is a far cry from the sober robes and armor of his critics, including his uncles John of Gaunt, the duke of York and Thomas of Woodstock (the august Philip Goodwin, Ted van Griethuysen and Floyd King).
If you don't recall that third uncle from previous encounters with "Richard II," it's no memory slip. At the top of the show, director Kahn has inserted material from "Thomas of Woodstock," an Elizabethan play sometimes grouped with the Shakespearean apocrypha. The interpolation is a smart ploy because it clarifies the tale's back story and establishes, more solidly than the canonical text, the king's missteps, including his catering to sycophantic councilors and his plan to turn England into his personal piggy bank.
These blunders prompt the rise of Richard's cousin and nemesis Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). Charles Borland lends this character a convincing average-Joe quality: He seems to turn usurper almost by accident, press-ganged by his countrymen's yen for a firm hand at the helm. Bolingbroke's regular-guy aura emphasizes his rival's fascinating mental instability -- glimpsed, for instance, when Hayden's Richard sprawls on the ground, hysterically caressing English soil after a return from Ireland; or when he falteringly hands his crown to Bolingbroke, then keeps hold of it at the last minute, a shell-shocked look on his face.
Putting on a show
Henry V (Bolingbroke's son) could have told Richard a thing or two about circumspection and repressing emotion for the sake of the realm. From his first scene -- when a soon-squelched tapping of his fingers, as he sits on a high-backed wooden throne, betrays his impatience with the bombastic archbishop of Canterbury (Goodwin) -- this Henry seems a royal who knows civilization's grim side and can put on a darned good public show despite it. Sure, he's a hero -- the guy actually rappels down those stone walls -- and he's so good at inspiring others that, in the 21st century, he'd have penned a best-selling motivational book.
But illuminating moments here and there tell another story. Standing tall, his face smeared with blood, he shouts ugly threats at the besieged town of Harfleur, but when the governor (Louis Lotorto) surrenders, Henry swallows with obvious relief and staggers off, suddenly vulnerable. Later, he nods curtly to greenlight the execution of his old pal Bardolph (King), but when he's alone, he kneels and clutches at the corpse in anguish.
With this steely commander spearheading the English, there's no hope for the French -- dressed, and feather-capped, by costumer Elizabeth Hope Clancy in exuberant colors such as violet and orange. The garb signals the overconfidence epitomized by the Dauphin (an enjoyably cocky Tom Story), who gets a massage on the eve of Agincourt.
Wars are not waged by blue bloods alone, and this pageantry-peppered "Henry V" (featuring symphonic music by composer Fabian Obispo) boasts very funny commoners (Darren Matthias's thuggish Pistol, Lotorto's surly Nym) and officers (Stephen Paul Johnson's beguiling Captain Fluellen). Women are scarce in these testosterone-charged plays, but Naomi Jacobson is sharp and droll as Mistress Quickly. (The actress also creates welcome comic relief in "Richard II" as a duchess of York.) In a scene of gentler humor, Rachael Holmes brings coquettish grace to the French princess Katharine, wooed with genuine awkwardness (or is this, too, a pose?) by Henry.
It goes without saying that numerous themes shared by "Richard II" and "Henry V" resonate in our political climate: the dangers of arrogance, the financial price of militarism, the anxiety that comes with power, the Brownie points a dignitary reaps by appearing to empathize with plebeians. Fortunately, neither Kahn nor Muse stoops to underscoring his play's topicality, although Muse does award the break-the-fourth-wall Chorus speeches in "Henry V" to a modern-dress trio: Robynn Rodriguez in jeans, van Griethuysen in a soldier's uniform and (delightfully) Larry Paulsen as a bow-tied academic, armed with index cards and a laser pointer.
The house lights are up when Rodriguez speaks the play's final lines. The artful darkness is over; the Bard's potentates have had their day. Now we have to look for real-world leaders: Better wish ourselves luck.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn; lighting, Mark McCullough; composer/sound, Martin Desjardins; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; wig design, Anne Ford-Coates for Elsen and Associates. With Meredith Burns, Sun King Davis, Conrad Feininger, Joseph Ibanez, DeVon Jackson, Dan Kremer, William LeDent, John Lescault, Jason Marr, Sarah Mollo-Christensen, Charlie Francis Murphy, Adam Navarro, Todd Quick, David Joseph Regelmann, Patrick Vaill, Derrick Lee Weeden, Scott Whitehurst. About 3 hours and 15 minutes.
Actor Michael Hayden takes on two demanding roles at Shakespeare Theatre
By Peter Marks
Sunday, February 7, 2010
So of course, you want to know: Why would he put himself through this? Every actor likes a challenge, sure. But there are strenuous tasks in the theater, and then there are Herculean labors, of a magnitude to stretch to the absolute limit the voice, the mind, the legs, the self-confidence.
Actually, in the case of Michael Hayden, you might be able to strike that last concern. Although he professes to have a "healthy dose" of apprehension, the man exudes self-belief, the sense that he knows how to take care of himself (and us) even when he's pushing beyond the logical bounds of human endeavor and making the art of the stage seem the act of a daredevil.
As, for instance, when he decides to play both Richard II and Henry V. At the same time.
Hayden is performing this extraordinary double duty for Shakespeare Theatre Company, where "Richard II" and "Henry V" began performances in repertory last week at Sidney Harman Hall. The productions may have demanded separate directors: Michael Kahn for "Richard," David Muse for "Henry." Two costume designers also seem to have been urgently required. Apparently, though, only one actor needed to apply for the two mega-characters who are among the largest parts by line count in all of Shakespeare. Or, as Akiva Fox, the company's literary associate, explained, the task of portraying both is the equivalent of memorizing the entire text of "The Comedy of Errors."
Not by a long shot is this Juilliard-trained New York stage actor -- who has a history with the theater company going back to "Sweet Bird of Youth" in 1998 -- the first of his profession to take on a heavy mantle in more than one play. Doubtless many veterans of the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, could engage in a game of "Can you top this?," enumerating the tragic royals and disguised lovers they've played in the revolving sequences employed by some classical repertory companies.
Still, when you consider how rarely title roles of this physical and intellectual intensity are parceled to any single actor -- and on top of that, how relatively short Hayden's Shakespearean rsum is -- you begin to feel just a wee bit anxious for him and the elaborate mechanics that must keep him focused and prepared. (And never mind that he wakes up every Monday, his day off, at 5 a.m. to take Amtrak back to New Jersey, so he can spend 24 hours with his wife and children in suburban Millburn.)
An intriguing proposal
Hayden has built a career on stage versatility, winning plum roles in everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" to Arthur Miller's "All My Sons." (He was also a regular on the TV procedural drama "Murder One.") His previous brush with the Bard was a role in a history play, that of Prince Hal in the well-received compression of the "Henry IV" plays at Lincoln Center Theater in 2004. But if this particular assignment, the eight weeks of rehearsals for the Washington double bill, has been grueling, Hayden doesn't like to show it.
Others who've watched him know how tough it is. "Michael has been such a pro about it," says Muse, Shakespeare's associate artistic director. "He soldiers on. Because of course he's exhausted."
The actor does acknowledge that he had an inkling from the get-go that this enterprise would be a bear. It was on the first day of rehearsals last year for Shakespeare Theatre's "The Dog in the Manger" -- in which Hayden had one sensibly sized part -- that Kahn had come up to him with the intriguing and daunting double-casting proposal.
"I just thought, 'How could you pass up that opportunity?' " Hayden says on a recent afternoon, as he sits in his dressing room in the subterranean honeycomb of Harman Hall. "And then I realized: Richard and Henry. And I thought: 'Holy [expletive]!' " Yup, that about sums it up.
Richard II and Henry V are strongly linked historically: Henry's father, Henry IV, was the architect of his cousin Richard's downfall, a usurper who took Richard's throne and orchestrated his murder. In terms of the temperament to rule, however, the two characters are worlds apart. Henry V was a natural-born leader; Richard II an utterly ill-equipped one. Literary critic Harold Bloom echoes the prevailing view when he writes that Richard was better suited to complex thought than practical matters. "He is totally incompetent as a politician," he declared, in a widely admired book on Shakespeare's characters, "and totally a master of metaphor."
Henry V, on the other hand, becomes a master of the battlefield with an additional gift -- a feel for the common man -- totally foreign to vain, imperious Richard. It's a clear-cut dichotomy that makes playing both of them especially delicious, even if Hayden has to let go completely of one king when he's playing the other. "A lot of people have asked, but it's never crossed my mind, that when I'm doing one I have to be conscious of being different from the other," he says. "I'm not thinking about it because the roles are so profoundly different -- there's not a thing similar about them at all."
A spreadsheet schedule
Choreographing the rehearsal periods for two huge plays is a particularly sensitive issue when one actor shoulders such an immense burden. A total of 32 actors have been cast for the project, which the company is calling "The Leadership Repertory." Thirty actors are in both plays, and to make survivable the elaborate ballet of readings, fittings and run-throughs, Matthew Shiner, the company's resident production stage manager, has to schedule everyone on an Excel chart, its entries negotiated at a 90-minute meeting at the end of every day.
To maintain parity, rehearsals were set up on a rotating schedule of days when one or the other play was the clear priority; inevitably, though, actors were running from practice for a scene from one production to the fitting of a wig for the other. "It's very stressful, in that you want to please your directors and you don't want time wasted," Shiner says. And then there is the consideration for Hayden.
"After a meeting with all the stage managers and assistant directors, we would text a draft of the schedule to Michael and say, 'How does this look to you? Would you rather sleep in, and do a costume fitting during lunch?' "
Hayden is standing at the moment on the stage of Harman Hall, framed by the 3-D rendering of a medieval castle -- the scenery that the plays will share. He's wearing the finery of fashion-plate Richard for a technical rehearsal, getting the feel of maneuvering in the cream-colored ensemble with a faux-ermine trim that Jennifer Moeller has designed for him.
"Michael, we need to lose the cape," Hayden says to Kahn, who's sitting in the otherwise empty first row. The actor, sounding a tad anxious, fiddles with the garment as if it were a vexing appendage. He provides a brief insight into his need to keep up his energy: Looking a little depleted, he calls out to Shiner for a snack. The stage manager bounds onto the stage with a packet of trail mix.
Kahn, meanwhile, stares back calmly, implacably at the cape: The billowing costume confers a regal sense of occasion. "Do we really need to lose it?" the director replies, in a tone that conveys a hint of how strongly he wants Hayden to wear it.
The director and actor have a long history: Hayden, 46, was a student of Kahn's at Juilliard. "I'm very strong-minded and confident and don't mind bringing anything up," Hayden says, afterward. "But if Michael says something is good and he wants it, I believe it." The cape stays.
Actor in the vortex
Assembling productions on this scale -- about 85 actors, technical and backstage people are employed day-to-day for the "Leadership Repertory" -- is made up of 10,000 such exchanges. And on any given day, Hayden seems to be at the vortex of half of them. Before being called to the stage for "Richard II," Hayden is down in wardrobe, having the finishing touches put on his warrior look for "Henry V" and the scene at the siege of Harfleur, where the king famously urges his men once more unto the breach.
The costume designer for "Henry," Elizabeth Hope Clancy, checks the length of the doublet, the contours of the armor, as Hayden cooperatively takes on the role of mannequin. He's got ideas, too, about how Henry should look -- how, for instance, his hair should remain, as he puts it, "un-coiffed."
"Henry's not vain," he says. "But I am."
Hayden came to the task very prepared. He'd read up extensively on the men he was to play and, even more impressively, had all those hundreds of lines committed to memory before rehearsals began. "Working on Shakespeare," he says, "is very much like working on a musical. Ultimately, you have to find a way to be completely free within the technical confines. And the biggest muscle to exercise is the intellectual muscle."
The daily workout seems to agree with him, even though playing these two roles is, as he puts it, "like living in two countries."
Still, it's a lifestyle he endorses. "How can I not enjoy it?" he says. "I'm playing two kings. And I've never left a theater, no matter what state I was in, not feeling better than when I went in."