Bringing Gender-Blind Shakespeare to "The Henriad"

Bringing Gender-Blind Shakespeare to "The Henriad"

Summer definitely seems to be the time when local companies dust off their Shakespeare texts and a wide range of the Bard's work is performed in public places. This is also a time when directors get a bit creative with their takes on these classics. Some of the work really well, others don't. 

But one such company, the Striving Artists Theatre Company is doing something quite interesting. Not only is the Boston based theatre doing Shakespeare's "The Henriad", a funny, action-packed blend of four of the bard's most popular histories, but they are doing it with a cast assembled from a gender-blind audition process. 

I had a chance to chat with the two directors of the production, Jeremy Funke and Gregory Luzitano about not only the task of taking on such a huge project but also the interesting aspects of a gender-blind audition process.

Tell me about what's so unique about the Henriad? What's so daunting about taking it on?

Jeremy: I was involved in a production of Henry IV (both parts, in repertory) about ten years ago, which was daunting in and of itself. This production of the Henriad shares a lot of structure in common with that one, though The Henriad includes text from Richard II (which precedes Henry IV) and Henry V (which succeeds it). 

So it’s daunting on a number of fronts. The first is textual: getting four dense and lengthy plays down to a length that is manageable as two (again performing in rep). 

The second is directorial, and the greatest challenge there is making sure that twelve actors juggling 45 roles between them still tell a clear story. Fortunately, a lot of the character-to-character conflict can be reasonably mirrored in actor-to-actor alignment, and where it can’t, we lean a little more heavily on costume and action to tell the story as clearly as we can. 

And it’s a lot of story – as a director you’re always trying to keep the bigger, two-hour picture in mind when you’re working scene-to-scene and moment-to-moment; with The Henriad, we’re doing that twice, since we want each part to stand on its own, but we’re also keeping the even larger four-hour story in mind – in large part, so the audience doesn’t have to, and can just enjoy the ride.

Greg: One thing that's exciting about The Henriad is its scope. For most of Shakespeare's plays, we're witnessing the characters during a relatively finite period of their lives (sometimes as little as a day), and already the characters develop with a depth that only Shakespeare can provide. With a cycle like this, we're following these characters through years of their lives, so we're able to see Henry IV go from being a banished man of no power to being the King of England, through to his declining years and ultimate death. Even more so, following the young Prince Henry – from his wild youth of debauchery at the beginning of Henry IV Part 1 to his final extraordinary St Crispian's Day speech at the end of Henry V – is a rich and profoundly rewarding experience.

I'm very interested in the gender blind casting, how did that process go? What was the end result of the breakdown of the cast?

Jeremy and Greg: Sometimes “gender-blind casting” means “we couldn’t get enough men” or “let the chips fall where they may”. In this case, we made a premeditated decision to simply cast the best and most appropriate actor or actress to attend to the demands of the role. 

What this meant from a practical standpoint was that we ended up casting females in the roles of all three monarchs (Richard and both Henrys) as well as Hotspur (Hal’s nemesis), Westmoreland and Warwick (loyal subjects of Henry IV and Henry V), and other parts that are male as-written. We also, almost accidentally, cast men in two of the more prominent female roles in the plays (Hostess Quickly and Lady Percy). 

Jeremy: Henry IV had to drop out due to work obligations and was replaced by her husband, co-director Greg Luzitano, but as with any choice in casting, we lost some things and gained others in this decision. For example, we have had to be more sensitive to the elder Henry not being a bully, and there is an enormous difference between mother-daughter relationships and father-daughter relationships. But those values at the core of the text - love, expectation, disappointment - are still there, just to different degrees and of different qualities. 

We’re not asking the men to “femme up” as the female roles any more than we’re asking the women to “butch up” for the male roles, and even if you’re familiar with these plays, the effect is far more elucidating than distracting. 

How has the cast been able to connect with the material?

Jeremy and Greg: The cast is remarkably talented - one thing about having an open call for a project like this is that your auditioners are a self-selecting bunch. You don’t get a lot of people who are dying to play Juliet or Bottom or Lady Macbeth; you might get fewer at auditions, but those who show up are familiar with the text, the genre, and the work necessary to mount something of this magnitude.

We’ve been particularly struck (in this summer, with the Public’s Julius Caesar controversy landing squarely in the middle of our rehearsal process) by how contemporary the play feels. We certainly don’t feel the need to put anyone in an orange wig and an ill-fitting suit – what we’ve noticed is that everyone, at one time or another, exhibits qualities that could be considered “Trumpian”, or Conway-esque, or Clintonian, for that matter. But that’s a conversation we’d much rather provoke after the show than during. They’re questions to be asked, not answered.

What are you hoping audiences take away from this?

Jeremy and Greg: Shakespeare’s histories don’t give us a dry lecture of facts – he played pretty fast and loose with those. Instead, he gives us the best of everything: the moving family story we’d expect from a tragedy, and the hilarious antics we’d expect from a comedy. 

Jeremy: We do hope the audience takes away a sense of curiosity. Curious about what happens next, to be sure, but also curious about how we got here. About whether we’re better now than we were then, and where we go from here. The history plays, like the rest of the canon, aren’t about where we’ve been nearly as much as they are about where we are now and where we’ll be tomorrow.

~~~

The Henriad will be performed in two parts, with the first on the Saturday of the weekend and the second on the Sunday. Join us for Part One to see Richard's fall, Henry IV's rise, and the Percy family rebellion, while Henry's son Hal drinks and thieves with his friends Falstaff, Bardolph, and others. In Part Two, you'll see Hal grow up to become Henry V, whose war with France gives us such famous lines as "The game's afoot" and "band of brothers". 

Performances are as follows:

Fall River Historical Society in Fall River on July 29 (Part 1) and 30 (Part 2) 4:00pm

Merrimack College in No. Andover August 4 (Part 1) and 5 (Part 2) - 7:30pm, August 6 - (Part 1) 2:00pm (Part 2) 5:00pm

Special double-bill on Sunday, August 6th, in which Part 1 will be presented at 2:00, with Part 2 at 5:00!

All shows are FREE! Our first two weekends are outdoors, so please feel free to bring a blanket, chairs, and a picnic lunch to enjoy!

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