Rose Mark’d Queen
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III and directed by Devin Brain. Presented through Aug. 13 by the Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival, in repertory with The Tempest and As You Like It. Artistic Director: Devin Brain. Producer: Tara Kayton. Associate Artistic Director/Dramaturg: Elliott Quick.
This show is the jewel in the crown that is the Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival. You knew it would be, right? However groovy The Tempest, however whimsical As You Like It, Rose Mark’d Queen promised novelty, mystery, bloodthirst. According to YSCSF producer Tara Kayton’s program notes, artistic director Devin Brain’s “idea to adapt Shakespeare’s histories into one story focusing on the character of Margaret” served as the impetus for the SumCab’s whole three-play repertory season in the first place.
Rose-Mark’d Queen opens with a bunch of boys playing with toy soldiers. You might have suspected it would be like that, mightn’t you? I know I did. There are only two workable metaphors when dealing with military history: sports and war toys. I’m happy that Brain didn’t go the sports route, though his cast is certainly athletic enough. The audience is exhorted to take sides at one point, getting marked up with red or white chalk, but the childhood images are sounder, especially when they extend to Nathan A. Roberts’ poignant toy piano musical score.
One more thought-it-would: We get a familiar opening line, one that puts us at ease for what we understand is a grab-bag of scenes from a host of long plays:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
At this point all expectations cease, and you are just plain in the thrall of a show that’s got so much going for it that it may leave you as breathless as its many deposed, disabled, dissembled or dismembered characters. Talk about your bright invention!
Rose Mark’d Queen, which Brain has cobbled together from Henry V, the three parts Henry VI and Richard III, is clever throughout, swift-moving and full of creative problem-solving when dealing with such sweeps of history in such a tight space with a mere five-member cast. It uses toys both kiddy and grown-up—from cloth dolls to an inflatable sex doll, from glittering gowns to fake blood—to keep the action both light and fraught. What mischief these playmates can get up to! Swearing, fighting, hostage-taking, torture!
The four-kings-and-a-queen ensemble (Matt Biagini, Marcus Henderson, A.Z. Kelsey, Babak Tafti, Jillian Taylor) are the tightest, most psychically connected cast of any of the three in the SumCabShakes festival (even though all but Kelsey also appear together in As You Like It). The mindmeld and shared pacing leads to some extraordinarily natural dialogue, considering how artificially pithy and pompous some of Shakespeare’s political pronouncements can be. As he does as Jacques in As You Like It, Matt Biagini has a natural talent for letting scanned verse trip off his tongue as if he’s informally chatting with an old friend. Babak Tafti nails an overblown, posturing wisecrack like “These words will cost ten thousand lives this day” by saying it to Margaret (Jillian Taylor) as if he’s pleased for having thought to phrase it that way. Likewise, A.Z. Kelsey spits “Ere sunset I’ll make thee curse the deed” (as Richard, to Clifford, with Henry VI and Margaret looking on, from the third act of Henry VI Part 3) as if he’s a mortal, not a swaggering cartoon. Marcus Henderson, who’s already proven his deftness at blending physical power with emotional vulnerability as Orlando in the YSCSF’s As You Like It,, not only fights well but leaves a good-looking corpse.
Jillian Taylor never for an instant makes Margaret a trophy wife—she’s whipsmart and gives abuse as good as she gets it—but also acknowledges that she wouldn’t have survived without sensuality and glamor. Though the whole night swirls around her, Taylor’s never above it but right in the thick of it. One of the wonders of Brain’s adaptation is how Queen Margaret is the play’s central figure without the other characters having to constantly acknowledge her. We get the main gritty male showdowns from all the plays, and then we’re reminded that Margaret was around too and had a stake in all these disputes. This is a continuity note that eluded Shakespeare, and which gives Rose Mark’d Queen its own strong personality and tone—one that’s refreshingly not based on chronological events in European history but on a single strong maturing character.
I’d fill you in more on who plays which king and why, if I thought it really mattered. There’s a royal family tree spanning 1327-1377 in the Rose Mark’d Queen program for those who need a scorecard, but honestly, don’t expect to be any clearer about British history than you would if you were plowing breakneck through a history book or BBC documentary. That’s the point of Rose Mark’d Queen. The point is how Shakespeare described power struggles, how he used flowing, poetic language to articulate vulgar impulses like warfare, how he captured sharp intimate exhanges amid the tumult of centuries of wild world history.
Rose Mark’d Queen is playful in every sense. It’s full of plays, obviously. But it doesn’t overburden itself. Just when one character starts to seem too prominent, the whole show shifts to fresh terrain. The show not only appreciate the kidlike impulses of world leaders, it respects short attention spans. The cast also appear amused by their own pell-mell playing style, amiably engaging the audience directly. They even improvise, mostly sotto voce away from the front lines of the Shakespeare verse. “You guys!,” they might cajole. Or scream “Mine!” when recapturing a dropped prop. “Oh man, I’m so dead,” was one interpolation on opening night (Saturday, July 9).
This purposely impertinent pageant of the past, fueled by both youthful fervor and intellectual precocity, deserves to have a future. Anyone who can collapse five of Shakespeare’s history plays into 150 minutes or so, with only five actors, deserves to have regional theaters beating a path to his door. As much as I love this original cast, I’d love to see other actors enter this playground. Rose Mark’d Queen is a tremendous achievement in knocking all those history plays together into an accessible whole, and I hope it gets a chance to move on up from the underground Cabaret space and make a little history of its own.
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