‘When a Woman Can Be King’: CRT’s Production of Henry IV

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The plays of William Shakespeare are generally classified in three genres – Comedies, Tragedies, and Histories. The Histories focus on English kings, and the Bard took full advantage of his creative license in telling their stories.

The Connecticut Repertory Theatre is following the playwright’s lead in its production of “Henry IV” by combining two plays into one and casting two women in the lead roles.

“There’s a lot of things Shakespeare does in his plays that are not historically accurate that he does very intentionally to create a more dynamic story,” says Sayet, who directs the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of Henry IV, the epic coming-of-age story of privilege, politics, and power that will be performed from April 25 through May 5 at the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre.

An early challenge for Sayet was to combine into one production Parts 1 & 2 of Henry IV, which follow the story of King Henry IV’s struggles to manage the strained relationship with his son, Prince Harry, while fighting off a rebellion against his rule.

“Deciding how you’re going to do that in a way that is remotely cohesive is difficult,” says Sayet. “It’s not designed to be one play. The parts we take from Henry IV 2 are building on what had already been established in Part 1. Pretty early on, I decided we weren’t going to introduce other characters.”

Sayet is one of the nation’s rising stage directors. Her credentials include an MA with Distinction from the Shakespeare Institute at Stratford-upon-Avon in the U.K. She has directed Shakespeare plays and other productions throughout the United States and overseas. At CRT, she previously directed “She Kills Monsters” in March 2018.

The director says that after finalizing the script, she had three questions she felt were at the center of the play: What is honor? Why do we go to war? What do we inherit from the generation before us?

“I thought those questions were particularly interesting, not only because they were present in the play but I thought they were intergenerational questions within the play and also interesting questions in an environment where there were students,” she says.

Over the last five to 10 years, there’s been a 50-50 shift toward gender parity in Shakespeare. … It creates a different environment when a woman can be a king. &#8212 Madeline Sayet

In addition to combining Shakespearian plays into one production, another highlight of the CRT production is the casting of Equity actors Aaliyah Habeeb as Henry IV and Michele Tauber as Falstaff with MFA actor Sebastian Nagpal as Prince Harry (Hal).

“Casting women as leads in Shakespeare is no longer an issue in the American theater,” Sayet says. “Over the last five to 10 years, there’s been a 50-50 shift toward gender parity in Shakespeare. The characters are larger than life. Women have the same Shakespeare training as men. It creates a different environment when a woman can be a king. If the woman can only be the side lover who should be murdered because someone doesn’t think she is chaste, the dynamics aren’t the same. Right now Glenda Jackson is on Broadway in the title role of ‘King Lear.’”

Last year, Habeeb was awarded the Nataasha van Kampen Grant to shadow at Shakespeare’s Globe in London for the production of “Othello.” Her recent New York credits include Lucrece in “The Rape of Lucrece” at the New York Shakespeare Exchange; “The Fabulous Miss Marie” (New Federal Theatre); and “Love Ya Like A Sis” (Venus/Adonis Festival).

Tauber’s credits in New York theater include, “The Charity That Began at Home” (Mint Theatre Co.), and multiple shows with The Acting Company, including “The Rivals” (Mrs. Malaprop), “Macbeth,” and “O, Pioneers.” Her television credits include “Orange is the New Black,” “Bull,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “Law & Order,” “Kate & Allie,” and “The Street.” She will also be featured in four episodes on the new season of “Search Party” on TBS.

“What’s been really exciting about Aaliyah and Michele is that not only are they incredibly talented Shakespearian actors, but they are also great leaders in the rehearsal room in terms of the way they model hard work and humility and dedication to the craft,” Sayet says. “They don’t take anything for granted. You can see them doing the work constantly in rehearsal, which is a great thing in a show where there are a lot of students. It shows [the students] that you don’t get to a certain point and stop putting in the work; that you get to that point because you keep putting in the work and doing the work.”

The creative team includes: Madeline Sayet (director), Kristen P.E. Zarabozo (scenic design), Samuel Biondolillo (lighting design), Jessica Haswell (costume design), Katie Salerno (sound design), Julius Cruz (dramaturg), and Tom Kosis (production stage manager).

The cast includes: Sebastian Nagpal (Hal), Erin Cessna (Hotspur), Aaron Bantum (John of Lancaster), Kaileen Wolfe (Westmoreland/Lady Northumberland), Sierra Kane (Warwick), Nikolai Fernandez (Sir Walter Blunt), Alex Campbell (Chief Justice), Anthony Giovino (Officer), Rebekah Santiago (Lady Percy), Angela Hunt (Northumberland/Mistress Quickly), Bryan Mittelstadt (Worcester), Harry Wendorff (Mortimer), Carly Polistina (Lady Mortimer/The Welsh Lady), Rob Barnes (Glendower), Nick Greika (Douglas), Tristan Rewald (Sir Richard Vernon), Mauricio Miranda (Poins), Betty Smith (Bardolph), Elias Beck (Pistol), Kevin Biciunas (Peto), Ethan Caso (Messenger/Servant).

For tickets and information visit crt.uconn.edu or call 860-486-2113.