The Judith Shakespeare Company has spent much of the past two years producing Shakespeare's history plays in a reading series they call "Shakespeare unplugged." These "unplugged" performances involve actors on book, minimal costumes, minimal set, and minimal tech. The project is tremendously ambitious, and the Judith Shakespeare Company deserves praise for trying it, even if it all doesn't quite come together.
As part of Shakespeare's history cycle, Henry VI is just one piece of a MUCH larger story. Henry VI Part One details the end of the Hundred Years' War and the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. Persons not already familiar with Henry V or British history will be lost, especially in the many scenes involving references to who has a greater right to the throne. It becomes laughable when characters say how clear it is that someone whose great aunt married the old king's third son has a greater claim to the throne than someone whose father's cousin's brother's neighbor's roommate was married to the old king's FOURTH son. It makes sense while looking at a genealogy chart of the House of Lancaster, but it gets confusing when zooming by in iambic pentameter.
The "Shakespeare Unplugged" productions had all actors garbed in black present-day clothes, with the occasional character-specific accessory (the French wear berets, the Bishop wear a a cross, etc.) These overly modest costumes made it nigh impossible to tell who's supposed to be who when some scenes start. The fact that many actors played more than one part just added to the confusion.
The Judith Shakespeare Company's THING is "Reexamining the roles for women in classical theatre." While this is an (arguably) commendable goal, it worked against them in this production. Most (but not all) of the roles were cast with reversed gender, with some actors playing both male and female characters. With the almost-nonexistent costumes it's difficult to tell what gender a particular character is supposed to be, until that character is addressed by proper name. Also, this play would seem to be the last one for them to choose, since it has Joan of Arc (Miriam Lipner), the embodiment of strong women's roles in classic theatre. For the record (despite the gender flipping in most other roles) Joan was played by a woman, thus depriving a male actor the unique opportunity to play one of the best roles in the show.
The massive cast (over 30 of 'em!) were often miscast, with lots of young women playing grizzled old men. Sometimes the casting was right, though -- especially Jason Howard as Lord Talbot.
Although the "Shakespeare Unplugged" series is little more than a gussied-up staged reading, the project is something that Bard geeks and drama students owe it to themselves to see. In addition to Part One of Henry VI the JSC is also presenting "unplugged" versions of Parts 2 AND 3. All three plays are running at the same time and dedicated viewers can catch all three in order.
(Also featuring Suzanne Hayes, Marie Bridget Dundon, Alison White, John Kinsherf, Lynne Kanter, Laurie Bannister-Colon, Vince Gatton, Natasha Yannacanedo, Susan Ferrara, Lana Buss, Miriam Lipner, Danny Brink-Washington, Dacyl Acevedo, Michelle Kovacs, Michael Shattner.)
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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby