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Gender Bending Power

Bring Down the House

Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,
I would remove these tedious stumbling-blocks
And smooth my way upon their headless necks;
And, being a woman, I will not be slack
To play my part in Fortune’s pageant.

Shakespeare’s Henry VI series where Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester’s twenty-first-century desire to shatter her fifteenth-century glass ceiling in a time where male leaders play petty games with human lives is brought to new life in Bring Down The House. The two-part, four hour freight train driven adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI series recently premiered at Seattle Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Seattle’s all-female classics company, upstart crow collective. Bring Down The House Part 1: Throne of Treachery and Part 2: Crusade of Chaos features an ensemble of eighteen racially and age diverse women tasked with telling the traditionally male dominated story of lusts for power during a historical civil war. This new black leather and denim clad adaptation of an Elizabethan story exposes the all too contemporary themes of sexism, nepotism, and greed in systems of power.

Between 1592–1600, Shakespeare premiered Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3 which staged the drama of the major players in The Wars of The Roses; Bring Down the House focuses specifically on the storylines of English unrest without most of the issues with the French court. When Henry V dies, his crown is left to his infant son, Henry VI, who lacks the mettle to be an effective leader when he comes of age. Since Henry’s grandfather came of the crown by usurping the throne of Richard II, the extended Plantagenet family members begin to question  which living family member is the legitimate king. The House of York, as symbolized by the white rose, makes a case for their lineage while the House of Lancaster, the red rose, insists the crown flows through their branch. Henry VI’s dubious leadership and unsupported marriage to Princess Margaret leads to  England losing its land holdings in France. Henry’s failures only fuel the brutal power struggle for the throne between York and Lancaster which blossom into a series of bloody battles at home. England is ensnared in unrest for years with frequent defectors and switching of loyalties. In the end, Henry VI is stabbed to death in a Tower of London cell, Margaret is banished, and their son is murdered by three Plantagenet brothers. King Edward IV of the House of York possesses the crown at the play’s conclusion, but it will not be for long with his brother, Richard III, waiting in the wings.

An actor on stage
Betsy Schwartz in the coronation of Henry VI. Photo by John Ulman. 

Hearing the actors confidently speak as the male characters outlining their ambitious leadership capabilities was electrifying, particularly with our own country’s rejection of female leadership still fresh in the minds of the audience.

Before even securing a producing partner, upstart crow co-founders Rosa Joshi, Kate Wisniewski, and Betsy Schwartz had hoped the production would occur in Fall 2016. They, along with the majority of the country at the time, were assuming that the national election would feature candidates from the Clinton and the Bush families, which would have made an excellent parallel to the York/Lancaster clash, but the January 2017 premiere date brought with it a unique significance within the current political landscape. Hearing the actors confidently speak as the male characters outlining their ambitious leadership capabilities was electrifying, particularly with our own country’s rejection of female leadership still fresh in the minds of the audience (“And, by my soul, this pale and angry rose, As cognizance of my blood-drinking hate, Will I forever and my faction wear, Until it wither with me to my grave Or flourish to the height of my degree.”) The very act of casting all women was political to the viewer and rebellious within the theatre community. Joshi spoke in an interview with The Stranger about the artistic and professional need for female actors to work together:

There are so many women who have classical chops in this town who don’t get an opportunity to really dig in and to work with each other. Men get to work with each other all the time! I’m also interested in giving opportunities to women in a field that lacks them. What happens to women in Shakespeare particularly is that you reach a certain age and there are only a few roles left.

Furthermore, the vulnerability thrust upon the female characters by males in power due to their gender is even more glaringly apparent when enacted by female actors. In one scene, we see the populous-driven, rebellion leader and ruffian, Jack Cade, boast of his plans to abuse his power once he takes the throne, “there shall not a maid be married, but she shall pay to me her maidenhead ere they have it.” The Access Hollywood bus is missing, but the nervous laughter of recognition ripples through the audience nonetheless. This cruelty extends to their wives as marriages are pawns in the men’s quest up the ladder for control. When the widowed Lady Grey goes to King Edward IV to ask for her husband’s lands, Edward is taken with her beauty. As he attempts to use her devotion as subject as that of a suitor, Shakespeare pens his female character to subtly avoid his suggestive remarks—a dialogue as old as time and as topical as any sexual harassment accusation at FOX News today. After a short time, Edward bluntly states, “To tell thee plain, I aim to lie with thee” and when she asks for a simple yes or no regarding her land query he retorts with “Ay, if thou wilt say ‘ay’ to my request; No if thou dost say ‘no’ to my demand.” These horrific actions are seen for what they are with an all-female cast, unable to be dismissed under the guise of “boys will be boys.”

Battle of drums
From left to right: Dedra D. Woods, Sarah Harlett, and Mari Nelson face of in battle beginning at the taiko drums. Photo by John Ulman. 

The gender swapping breathed a 2017 atmosphere into the historical text, though Joshi added moments ripped from the recent election and political conversation for added poignancy. When Duchess Eleanor is unlawfully arrested, the original text says that she wears papers on her back—referring to the papers of the criminal charges. Joshi chose to illuminate this unseen offstage moment with a crowd hurling a barrage of derogatory female insults as Eleanor makes her way to prison; the peppered cries become a collective chant of “Witch! Hag! Filth! Wanton! Wicked! Nasty! Traitor!” Those words appear on strips of paper and are then  aggressively strapped to her garment  by members of the angry mob. It is a dismal and all too familiar scene of watching a woman be stripped of her power through reductive gendered slander. As Jack Cade is rabblerousing his horde of common supporters with a lengthy speech of impossible promises (“There shall be in England seven half penny loafs sold for a penny”) and ridiculing  even the most basely educated (“Hang him with his pen and ink-horn about his neck.”) a follower is heard to scream “Make England Great Again!” The scene concludes with Cade saying “I alone can mend it”—a line Joshi added admittedly on November 9 in reference to Trump’s “I alone can fix it” remark. Joshi and Wisniewski’s Bring Down The House exposes how the personal greed of those in power results in widespread civilian costs and unbalanced leadership. Unnervingly, the production uses the quashed Cade Rebellion as a metaphor for the rise of Donald Trump which leaves us wondering what horrific Richard III figure may be awaiting their entrance on our present political stage.

Seattle’s Center House Theatre was stripped bare in Shawn Ketchum Johnson’s set design. Employing only a few black pipes at juxtaposing angles piercing into the ground as décor, unadorned black chairs and tables are stacked atop each other to create the coveted throne or strewn about to depict the ruins of a battle field. With the cavernous space left with little accoutrement, the audience is left to focus on the only detail provided painted across the floor: the intricate and infamous ancient lineage that is the source of all the  bloodshed. The action literally takes place on top of the Plantagenet family tree. More than set dressing, Joshi utilizes this map whenever the text refers to or alters it. The notable Henry VI Pt 2 monologue detailing the circuitous journey of the crown throughout the ages is enacted by the ensemble bringing the chart to life. When marriages occur, an actor alters the tree using chalk to stencil in a new branch. The chalk is an appropriate material for this production, as it both quickly updates the tree while also capturing the precarious nature whereupon these matters rest; when someone is killed or a marriage is thwarted, the alteration is wiped clean from the chart with a decisive swipe… and perhaps a bit of spit.

Watching the actors deftly operate the drums and execute the tightly directed choreography keeps the story within the world of the ensemble, celebrates their physical strength, and amplifies the unrelenting rigor of war.

An actor led away from his family on stage
Aishe Keita as Prince Edward being led away from his family by Mari Nelson as York. Photo by John Ulman.

Discreetly housed within Johnson’s landscape are two taiko drums that are utilized during battles scenes, artfully crafted by choreographer Alice Gosti. Joshi and Gosti created large scale battles with gesture and motion that highlight the manmade violence at play. The taiko drums reverberate off the bare theatre walls consuming the audience in the battle cry. Watching the actors deftly operate the drums and execute the tightly directed choreography keeps the story within the world of the ensemble, celebrates their physical strength, and amplifies the unrelenting rigor of war. The dance-like warfare and adapted text work together to bring the bitter cost of common man blood by so called noble provoked conflict to the forefront. In one particularly striking battle scene during Part 2: Crusade of Chaos, an elaborate battlefield mourning ritual is performed which captures the dismal cycle of war—civil war in particular. Two actors rise from the floor and cross to two actors who lay slain (“This man, whom hand to hand I slew in fight, May be possessed with some store of crowns. Who's this? O God! It is my father's face”) Where they expect to see a foe, they recognize their own relation. The two actors move through motions of recognition, horror, regret, grief, love, and loss until they crumple to the ground, the other fallen relation stands and the action is similarly repeated. When the two pairs have moved through their tragic motion sequences of father grieving son and son grieving father, the curtains are drawn to reveal the entire cast in paired sets who repeat the motion in breathtaking unison.

Bring Down The House Part 1: Throne of Treachery and Part 2: Crusade of Chaos adapts and gender bends William Shakespeare’s seldom performed Henry VI series to bring fresh understanding to American politics and new faces to Shakespearean theatre in America. Given the current interest in all-female casting of Shakespeare, including Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar and last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Taming of the Shrew, theatres are capturing the zeitgeist of the post-election awareness of structural sexism. All-female casting brings vital professional development to theatre communities as well as profound artistic inspiration. Young Clifford summarizes it best when he asks Henry VI to leave, “The queen hath best success when you are absent.”

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"...particularly with our own country’s rejection of female leadership still fresh in the minds of the audience."

Actually, our country didn't reject female leadership -- almost any other woman, such as Elizabeth Warren (who I signed petitions back in 2015 begging to run!) would have won. Alas, the democratic party is set up (via the superdelegate system, the CNN debate moderator giving questions to HRC in advance, et cetera) to make sure that the candidate the establishment wants, not what the people want, is selected as the democratic candidate, putting her at a disadvantage in the general election in November since (for the most part) it is the people, not the establishment) that determines the winner of that.