The rest of “Henry VIII,” also a Shakespeare-Fletcher collaboration, was tedious, so I expected little from the Pennsylvania festival’s show. But the actors outfoxed me. They managed to tease a pretty good play out of their somewhat Shakespearean script.
The impact of Mulcahy’s idea to let the actors direct themselves? The cast took on the play with a “level of investment and an intensity of investment” that he says he’s never seen before.
After the show, I talked with several of the players, who said working on a frantic schedule without a director crystallized everything for them. “We discovered it together,” said actress Lauren Orkus.
Thomas Matthew Kelley and Spencer Plachy, who played the two noblemen, said many productions are built around a concept the director imposes on the actors. Not this time. “Concept was a word we never used,” Plachy said. “We just tried to tell the story.”
Although the play ends on a tragic note, the actors played much of it for laughs with some wonderfully absurd touches. One nobleman — forced to disguise himself — succeeds with a pair of black-rimmed glasses. One feeds the other a McDonald’s quarter-pounder and pours his red wine into a McD paper cup filled with ice.
Orkus, as the daughter of the jailer, enlivened the middle of the play — the part Shakespeare had less to do with. The daughter falls for one of the kinsmen, Palamon, and sneaks him out of the jail. He then turns his back on her, and she wanders through the rest of the play as a madwoman. As with many of Shakespeare’s crazies, we come to see her as saner than the sane people.
The play remains an ungainly mix of tragedy and farce. I asked the actors: What’s it really about? Lost love, of course. And the fickleness of fate.
Said Kelley, a rangy actor with sad, deep-set eyes: “I think it’s about how we live our lives blind to what’s important. It’s about how we’re blinded by the pursuit of honor.”
It turned out that nobody in the cast had ever seen it staged before. “It’s the bottom of the list,” they agreed.
Thanks to them, I’ve crossed it off of mine.
John Pancake was arts editor of The Washington Post from 1998 to 2006 and spent the past three years in Ukraine and Taiwan. He now lives in the Shenandoah Valley and is still in search of “All’s Well That Ends Well” and the three parts of Henry VI.