Regional Reviews: Phoenix
"Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings," the play begins, using a bit of dialogue from Richard II that talks about these kings being deposed, slain in war, haunted by ghosts, or killed by their wives or in their sleep. With dialogue from the plays and bits of narration to string highlights from the eight works together, we witness the exploits of Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Richard III, and Henry VII, as the battle between the houses of York and Lancaster plays on while conflict, deception, and mayhem reign and well-known characters such as Joan of Arc play supporting parts in this historical adventure tale.
Appel's idea to combine Shakespeare's history plays together makes perfect sense. Seeing all eight condensed into one piece beautifully shows the succession of the crown from one man to the next, ultimately tying together all of the kings and the characters in the plays. My only very small negative comment concerning this thrilling 90-minute abridged version is the transfer of the crown from Henry V to Henry VI could be a bit more clear.
Appel's direction is spotless, with only the use of one set piece, a throne, and a few prop pieces to theatrically bring the large-scale battle scenes as well as the introspective inner thoughts of these larger than life characters beautifully to life. Seeing the characters pull, drag, push, and move the throne about the stage while the one main crown is transferred from man to man is very effective in showing how these characters are ultimately all after the same thing: power.
Appel is aided by the impressive contributions of movement choreographer Christina McCarthy, fight director Jeffrey Mills, and composer and musician Jim Connolly. Together they create some impressive stage images. These include a gorgeous battle on horseback with just the use of large bamboo sticks which are also used for Prince Hal's fight with Hotspur and Joan of Arc's burning at the stake, the bamboo sticks rubbing violently against each other to make a cackling noise and moving up and down to depict the rising and falling of the flames. Connolly plays the electric guitar and percussion, even banging on a steel trashcan, and provides some eerie whistles to create a constant and always changing soundscape that is additive to the play. Ann Bruice's costumes use dark grey and dark brown base costumes with flourishes of color in small costume embellishments as well as pops of color in the period gowns for the main female characters and the simple but effective use of red gloves to depict blood and murder.
The fourteen actors, all seniors in the acting program at UC Santa Barbara, are all exceptional as they form a tightknit ensemble, play multiple roles, and provide narration that bridges the piece together. While each member of the company gets a moment or two to shine, most attention is focused on a few of the kings and the individuals closest to them.
Jason Bowe plays both the firm Henry IV, who wishes his son Prince Hal were more responsible, as well as Hal's drinking buddy, the playful Falstaff. He morphs between the two divergent characters with ease. Steven Armstrong is quite good as Hal, who must turn his back on his friends once the weight of his duties when he is crowned King Henry V become clear. Kerry Jacinto instills a clear sense of determination in her portrayal of Joan of Arc, and Oliver Rubey is exceptional as the manipulating murderer Richard III. Dylan Broxson projects a firm, regal tone as Richard II in his narration that bookends the play. When he puts the crown back on his head at the end of the piece it is almost haunting in its simplicity, beauty and effectiveness, seamlessly tying together all of these men and women and showing that no matter who wears the crown, some things never change and the battle for power never truly ends.
The Death of Kings: Seize the Crown, through May 31, 2019, at Taliesin West, located at 12345 N Taliesin Drive, Scottsdale AZ. Tickets can be purchased at http://swshakespeare.org or by calling 480-644-6500. For more information on the play, visit www.deathofkings.com.
Adapted and directed by Irwin Appel
Cast (in order of appearance):
King Richard II, Charles: Dylan Broxson