Theater

All Hail Queen Margaret

It’s not uncommon for RI’s theater scene to be taken over by Shakespeare in the summer months.

This season, we’ve already seen TRIST present The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Burbage is getting ready to revive their production of Julius Caesar, which was fantastic when I saw it five years ago at the William Hall Library. CCRI’s Summer Rep has The Tempest and Henry V ready to go, and I’ve heard that Trinity Repertory and RILA’s English-Spanish adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (Tanta Bulla… ¿Y Pa’ Qué?) is one of the best versions of that play anyone’s seen in years.

In the midst of all this, Head Trick Theatre has found a way to give us our fix of the Bard without resorting to dusting off Twelfth Night for another go-around. (Nothing against those of you who’ve done it, but I’ve seen Twelfth Night so many times, I now find it hard not to mouth the lines as I’m sitting in the audience.)

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We’re all very lucky to have Head Trick in the heart of Providence presenting classical stories in fierce productions that seem to be getting tighter and more refined over time. This spring’s Goblin Market was one of my favorite shows of the season, and now we have the US Premiere of Jennifer Dick’s Queen Margaret to inject some highly entertaining high art into the soporific summer scene of downtown theater.

Walking into the space, you’re struck by the sparseness . Nothing but a chair is visible onstage, and the audience has been divided up and asked to choose between Yorks and Lancasters. You’re given a small flower to pin to your lapel (or tank, in my case) and sent back in time to witness political maneuvering, bloody battles and a fine ensemble bringing a magnifying glass to one of classical theater’s lesser-yet-still-fascinating characters.

If you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays, the first thing I should tell you is that they’re the closest and best thing we have to cinematic universe, and Margaret of Anjou is sort of like the Scarlet Witch.  She appears first in Henry VI, but when we first meet her, she’s shrouded in darkness and fully resident in her rage. The opening of the play strikes you as something wonderfully dark and sensual. So often, men get all the memory plays to themselves, but much like Shaw’s Saint Joan, this time we get to see how a woman strategically navigates a man’s world.

We’re then taken back in time to meet her as a war bride, and over the course of two acts, we see Margaret come into her own as a woman to be reckoned with as her husband falls from power due in part to his own instability. As Richard III makes his presence felt more in Act Two, those of us who have seen this story play out in other productions know we’re careening toward a tragic end, and those who haven’t will feel the palpable tension anyway thanks to Maxfield’s smartly restrained direction.

Kerstyn Desjardin is gives a visceral and sustained performance as Margaret. The danger of playing a character who follows the powerless/powerful/powerless trajectory is that it’s tempting to let the whole thing rest on rage and despair, but Desjardin goes in the opposite direction, and paints a portrait of a woman who is never ready to surrender even when the war is long over. Her strongest scenes are when she is trying to make sense of the dire situations she finds herself in, and you get the sense that were she born a man, she would have been three times the king her husband was.

As the husband, Ken Lumb is does a fine job of making Henry something along the lines of a meandering academic rather than just an all-out wimp.  You’re never unaware that he has no business ruling a kingdom, but you can’t help but feel sorry for him at times, and his soliloquies are particularly affecting.

In fact, the play has many moments of direct address, and just about all of them are stellar. Anytime you have the chance to sit in an audience while Joanne Fayan commands your attention, I suggest you sit back and take notes, because you’re in for quite the acting lesson.

Fayan plays the Duke of York, and her final face-off with Margaret is something to be remembered. Never has someone seemed so fearsome and ferocious while on their knees before an enemy. It was riveting.

The fight scenes are well-choreographed by Ryan Stevenson, and Lauren Pothier should be commended for her sensible approach to costuming the show. Technically speaking, everything is done with minimal flair, and so the production has a polished look to it that serves it well. The adaptor keeps the scenes fairly short as well, and is wise enough to juxtapose action with angst, and death with deception.

One of Head Trick and Maxfield’s strengths is that she continues to find creative ways to use the blackbox space at AS220 where it is the resident theater company. This time, she’s opted for the Donmar Warehouse approach, which I love. The use of darkness and shadow throughout the piece is foreboding and leaves much to our imaginations. In fact, ghosts are a prominent part of Jennifer Dick’s adaptation, which serves as a sort of historical collage mixed with something Gregory Maguire would be proud of — a spotlight piece on a character who deserved better from her creator.

The theme of Head Trick’s season is “In War With Time,” and that fits Queen Margaret perfectly.  While the old adage states that life happens at parties, in Shakespeare, life often happens on the battlefield, and the growth and evolution of its title character seems propelled forward by her experiences watching the machinations and consequences of war, while benefiting from and then falling to the ravages of time and how cruelly it displaces one monarch for another.

Hats off to Maxfield for continuing to discover under-the-radar gems like this one, and here’s to another brilliant season of classics you simply can’t find anywhere else.

Head Trick Theatre’s Queen Margaret runs through July 21 at the AS220 Black Box, 95 Empire St, PVD.

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