Any bonafide theater company devoted to the works of Shakespeare has a certain production hat trick on its bucket list — and Kentucky Shakespeare has already done it. Shakespeare’s Henriad — a tetralogy consisting of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” “Henry IV, Part 2” and “Henry V” — has been part of Kentucky Shakespeare’s long game since they last produced “Richard II” in 2017 as the beginning of their “Game of Kings” series. A sequel cycle of plays — what many a Shakespeare nerd considers a continuation of the Henriad — that includes parts one through three of “Henry VI” and concludes with “Richard III” is in the dauntless company’s sights now.
Amy Attaway, Kentucky Shakespeare’s associate artistic director, is helming a production that condenses the seldom produced “Henry VI” plays into a unique and breezy 90-minute distillation entitled “Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses” that will serve as a bridge between the company’s earlier Henriad efforts and “Richard III,” which will be part of the mainstage season in the summer.
The internal process for this undertaking began when Attaway and Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace took on the organization’s leadership roles in 2014 as a dialogue on how to prove their artistic chops but more importantly, on how to find a way to renew the community’s sense of ownership of and familiarity with Kentucky Shakespeare. In producing the Henriad, audiences would be obliged to come back for a loosely connected story across seasons as well as to see characters played by the same actors, almost as if catching up with old friends.
“When we got to ‘Henry V,’ especially after having the COVID year where we didn’t produce live, it felt like such a victory… carrying through the same actors… it felt like such an achievement, like we had made it to the top of the mountain,” said Attaway, “But then thinking about what to do next… people don’t know “Henry VI” as well, and the plays themselves, individually, are not as strong as ‘Henry V’ and ‘Richard III.’”
This is why, when sister organization Tennessee Shakespeare Co. announced a tour of a condensed version of “Henry VI,” Attaway jumped at the chance to see it: “I was sort of like, ‘OK. if I see it, and it’s good, and I feel like the storytelling really is accomplished in 90 minutes, and we can raise a little bit of money to get this thing off the ground, and we can find a time in the calendar where we can do it that’s not going to conflict with anything else we’re doing, then we’ll do it.’”
The stars aligned, and suffice it to say, Attaway thought the play was good. With Tennessee Shakespeare’s permission, Attaway and her team have made some slight changes to accommodate various production needs that facilitate a smooth transition for Kentucky Shakespeare audience members from “Henry V” to this summer’s “Richard III,” but otherwise, this is the play Attaway saw. And there are quite a few things Attaway is excited for audiences to experience.
“These three plays introduce some of Shakespeare’s strongest women. And they almost all carry over into “Richard III,” hinted Attaway. “I’m [also] really excited about how fast-paced and unexpected this version is. It moves so fast, and the characters change so quickly, and it’s going to be a really exciting workout for these eight actors.” The average audience member may be surprised to see the word “fast-paced” used to discuss a Shakespeare play.
Mollie Murk, one of the eight actors put to the test in this production and who is playing the formidable Joan of Arc — among other roles — can attest to these points: “[Joan of Arc] is one of very few Shakespearian roles for women that has no real tie to any particular male character. She gets to command the army… She is a very brave and very physically activated character.”
Murk is speaking here to the fact that for most women in theater, stage combat training does not get to happen naturally very often: “There are a lot of male actors that I know that have no fighting experience, but because they’re playing male characters, they get to fight all the time. And they’ll eventually get to grow and become really good fighters just by being in Shakespearian plays.” What might often be an unfulfilled interest for Murk, here is instead a rare glimpse of female mentorship and just a smart director utilizing her actor’s talents.
The Henriad deals with the transitory nature of power, the humanity in political machinations and the weight of leadership, but beyond all of that, Shakespeare always speaks to something eternal. His work is relevant in entirely new ways each time it’s produced, and audiences absolutely must not deprive themselves of the opportunity to see “Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses” when it opens in the coming weeks.
“Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses” runs March 30-April 16 at Kentucky Shakespeare’s new space at 616 Myrtle St. For more information, visit kyshakespeare.com.
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