The number on the Shakespeare “Henry” this weekend at Bosque River Stage is five, but for the McLennan Theatre production that’s staged there it might be called a tale of two Henrys.
On Thursday and Friday, Henry’s a she. On Saturday, he’s a he.
The two Henrys in “Henry V” are the result of double-casting: Both Caitlin Riley and Eric Anderson had strong auditions for the lead role of the Shakespeare history, and directors Kelly Parker and Elizabeth Talbot opted to add rather than divide. “After much hemming and hawing, we decided, ‘Why not two Henrys?,’ ” said Parker, a McLennan Community College theater professor.
Riley will play Henry as a man, costumed as such and with no changes in the script outside of the usual editing and condensing done to bring a Shakespearean drama closer to the two-hour patience level of an American audience.
“Henry V,” one of Shakespeare’s 11 English history plays, follows a young King Henry V as he grows into his crown. He foils a plot to overthrow him, then takes his army to France, where they defeat a superior French force at the Battle of Agincourt. Romance also is in his royal skill set as he attempts to woo the French princess Catherine for both personal reasons and national considerations.
As much as any of Shakespeare’s histories, “Henry V” is a story of leadership and its responsibilities.
While the production remained true to the play’s plot and language, the directors found its physical staging required some changes. That, in turn, led to new angles of interpretation. Anderson is taller and larger than Riley, and blocking for him didn’t work for her, Parker said.
The king giving orders to his generals didn’t read the same way when she was speaking up to her subordinates. Similarly, swordplay and fighting scenes had to be reworked to make them more believable.
“It was almost two different shows to block,” Parker recalled. “It really caught us off-guard.” Changing the blocking shifted some characterization in the process. Anderson’s Henry V feels more like one of the guys; Riley’s has a greater perception of status and power. The two actors’ fighting styles also shaped their characters, with Riley more inclined to win by any means necessary, a knee to the groin rather than slashing sword stroke, which makes her seem slightly more ruthless, the director said.
“As in most Shakespeare, the play doesn’t reveal itself until you play it,” Parker said.
The scale of “Henry V” and McLennan Theatre’s short play runs made alternating Henrys a better option than preparing an understudy, who might not be called upon after doing the considerable work to memorize and prepare the part.
“Henry V” also presented a language challenge for its cast of some 30 actors: upper- and lower-class English accents, plus Scottish, Welsh and French ones. That’s where British-born and theatrically trained Talbot, an advising specialist in MCC’s student development office and a theater department adjunct, proved instrumental to the production.
Parker noted that Shakespearean histories aren’t as frequently performed in Waco as his comedies and a handful of his best-known dramas. “Henry V,” however, is as theatrically compelling as any of Shakespeare’s dramas and a personal favorite, he said. “This play hooked me into Shakespeare,” he said.
“Henry V” will be staged at MCC’s Bosque River Stage, an outdoor space with room for swordplay, with action presented in front of a large wall cobbled from worn and weathered wood fencing. The rough and uneven surface suggests what is happening in the history, Parker said.
“It’s war. It’s chaos. It’s fragmented lives,” he said.