Bring Down the House
By Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is drawing close to wrapping up its ten-year-long commitment to staging all of Shakespeare’s plays within a single decade. That’s 36 shows in ten seasons, with crowd-pleasers like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest” (both running in 2020) along with several of Shakespeare’s lesser-known, rarely-performed plays. Speaking of which, sooner or later OSF would have to get around to the Bard’s first effort as a playwright (or make that “efforts”) — parts one, two and three of his 1591 trilogy about King Henry VI. The last time OSF presented The Hank 6 plays was in 2004, and though critics praised the productions, directed with considerable verve and passion by Libby Appel (Part One) and Scott Kaiser (Parts Two and three), the high quality of the productions did not translate quite so well into ticket sales, with many performances playing to only partially-filled houses.
That should not be the case with this year’s presentation of ‘Bring Down the House,’ Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski’s radical reinvention of the Henry VI trilogy, condensed, coalesced and reconstructed into two 2-1/2 hours shows played 85 times each over the next eight months, usually a day apart, but both on the same day 25 times before the season is over. Add to that the fact that, as directed by Joshi (who caused a sensation two years ago with her eye-popping “Henry V”), this production features a large, all female or non-binary cast of actors. With the added attraction of both parts being staged in the intimate, state-of-the-art Thomas Theater, OSF has taken what might have been a hard sell and, replicating the example of such world-wide successes as the two-part “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and the eight-hour marathon of “Gatz” (a staged reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”), has set up “Bring Down the House” to be one of this year’s must-see, can’t miss, too-bad-you-didn’t-get-tickets-in-time theatrical events.
Of course, that only works if the enterprise turns out to be good.
“Bring Down the House,” it so happens, is great.
“The King is dead! Long live the kings!”
So begins what will turn out to be a life and death struggle to remain king (and alive) in world where almost all of your friends want you dead.
Keeping in mind that the original “Henry VI” plays were young Shakespeare’s first, fledgling swing-for-the-fences shots at playwriting, the text depends less on the soaring poetry of the author’s mature works, relying instead on sheer entertainment: melodramatic plotting, rising tensions, scandalous depictions of historical characters (who to Shakespeare’s original audience probably seemed more like juicy rumors and gossip than ancient history), breathtakingly rapid reversals of fortune, and a big, bloody parade of conspiracies, betrayals and back-stabbings (many literal).
England’s Henry VI, who succeeded his father Henry V, reigned from 1422 to 1461, beginning as an infant till the age of 40. During his life, he accomplished little beyond fretting and praying and hoping for the best, while his famous the political gains his father made were gradually erased by competing factions, leading to the devastating War of the Roses. Theater critics have made much sport of Shakespeare’s decision to base three plays on a king who did almost nothing. As “Bring Down the House” demonstrates, however, what was interesting about this time period is not the king himself (played with gentle, wide-eyed sweetness by Betsy Schwartz), but all of the crazy, outrageous shit perpetrated by a colorful ever-shifting pageant of rogues, rebels, traitors, conspirators, schemers, mischief-makers, valiant heroes (though not many) and a handful of all-time, world-class villains. They are played with chameleon-like genius by a cast of 16 actors portraying dozens of roles on a deliciously spare set on which are painted the names of the kings of England in order of succession. Those names, occasionally added to with a white marker – and a number of hardworking tables and chairs – are all the scenery needed to tell this massive story. Just to keep things clear, the characters use the names at their feet in numerous clever ways to ensure that those of us watching, from three sides of the rectangular stage, can always (mostly) follow the oft-tangled web of royal lineage everyone is arguing, warring and killing each other about.
Speaking of which, take my word: don’t get attached to anyone.
This two-part epic does cover one of Britain’s most brutal 50 years of conflict. No sooner does some duke or captain set his sights on claiming Henry’s crown, energetically undertaking some unique path to the throne, then his head ends up wrapped in plastic and stuck on a stick, making way for the next player to come along and give it a go themselves. There are moments of dark comedy and searing tragedy, as this brilliant encapsulation of history, and Yoshi’s extraordinary cast, makes us despise these people one moment and pity them the next.
Much of the action, including many of the battles, are staged with ritualistic flair, some fast and brutal, others gaspingly poetic, as in a late-in-the-story sequence using dancer-like precision of movement to illustrate the cost of civil war.
As for the opportunity this staging gives us to see such a male-heavy story acted out by women and non-binary performers, the decision is much more than sheer novelty. It is certainly a joyous thing to see talented actors getting a chance to play in a sandbox they’ve previously been largely excluded from, swinging swords and slitting throats, strutting about with privileged power and pomp, taking the lead in scenes they’d otherwise have been watching from the sidelines. But the long and short of it is, as cast, these are without question the right performers for these roles. To a person, they are magnificent, filling the stage with dazzlingly chewy moments of rage, riot and revelry.
To certain viewers, the experience of watching non-male-identified performers act out the real-life brutalities of men may feel like political commentary. In the end, what those of us know who are lucky enough to grab a ticket to this one-of-a-kind stage spectacle is that while watching “Bring Down the House,” all such hidden commentary ceases to matter.
Whatever the various choices ultimately mean, and regardless of the juicy conversations you have afterwards, during the watching of it, this is one bloody good show.
[“Bring Down the House” runs through November 1 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Find information about this and the rest of the 2020 season at OSFAshland.org]