It’s often said that you can tell a famous actor is delivering a great performance when they embody the character so much that you forget he/she is a star. A similar thing happens in Upstart Crow Collective and Seattle Shakespeare’s Bring Down the House, the two-part adaptation of the Bard’s Henry VI trilogy currently running at Center Theatre. While one might not forget that the show boasts an all-female cast, it largely feels irrelevant to the proceedings. It’s not a gimmick, and apart from a few lines where characters belittle capacity for female competency—which garner knowing laughs in this context—the casting doesn’t make a massive impact on the grand life-and-death Shakespearian drama of English royals and rebellions.
In the wake of King Henry V’s death, Bring Down the House finds England in a state of turmoil. Split into two productions–Throne of Treachery followed by Crusade of Chaos—the story centers around King Henry VI, the young and noble heir to the throne, and the web of bloodthirsty, power-hungry factions that plot for his crown. The meek and unpopular Henry VI must fend off claims to the throne from the rival House of York, a revolt led by rebel leader Jack Cade, and even underhanded plotting by his own wife, Queen Margaret.
Both segments of Bring Down the House lean heavily on three strong and distinctly different performances from key players: Betsy Schwartz as Henry VI, Mari Nelson’s Richard of York, and Kate Wisniewski as Queen Margaret. York and Margaret both lust for power in their own destructive ways. Nelson plays York with a braggadocios sense of gleeful scheming. Her treacherous cockiness is evident in every insincere smile and declaration she delivers Henry VI while not-so-secretly plotting to take his crown. Nelson delights in flashing her fangs.
Wisniewski’s Margaret is a much more adaptable creature, transitioning from planning against her husband with her lover, the Earl of Suffolk (Kate Sumpter), in Throne of Treachery to defending Henry VI’s throne for him (in order to keep her own power) during Crusade of Chaos. In the context of an all-female production, she becomes an even more fascinating character, serving as the plays' strongest alpha character—a queen willing to fight dirtier than any man. Especially in Crusade of Chaos, Wisniewski’s stone cold bravado makes Margaret’s commanding leadership feel authentic and cruelly terrifying as she crosses lines of decency that transcend gender.
But with all the swirling chaos in the plays, it’s Schwartz’s titular role that holds everything together and brings humanity to the proceedings. Her Henry VI radiates a kind-hearted innocence that’s alien to all the power-hungry souls around him. He’s not quite a simpleton, but in every wide-eyed, bewildered look that flashes across Schwartz’s face there’s a sense that he’s in helplessly over his head. In private, he even openly wishes that he was a subject instead of king. Bring Down the House only works from an audience investment standpoint because Schwartz makes it easy to pull for the virtuous but weak Henry VI over the pack of rabid wolves biting at his ankles.
Bring Down the House condenses between 10–12 hours of material from the Henry VI trilogy of plays into a pair of two-hour chunks, which has clear advantages and drawbacks. The distillation helps the pacing. There’s hardly ever a dull or dragging moment as each scene flows right into the next, but occasionally things move a bit too fast. It can be a bit dizzying to keep up with all that’s befalling England. The build of certain characters lacks the breathing room necessary to build depth or investment. Things can occasionally seem a bit like a Cliff Notes recap of events. For example, when Jack Cade (Peggy Gannon) leads his rebellion against Henry VI at the beginning of Crusade of Chaos, his meteoric rise comes to a crashing halt within a scene or two of being introduced. Still, on the whole, the ease with which an audience can digest the loaded plot thanks to the reorganization makes up for some of the loss in rich character development.
The inclusion of Japanese taiko drumming as an undercurrent throughout the production adds a sense of building tension to the proceedings. It doesn’t exactly make the violence in fight scenes more compelling or make the occasional militaristic choreographed interstitial by the cast between scenes seem necessary, but the thundering rumble makes it feel like there’s always dread lurking ominously on the horizon. The staging in Center Theatre is sparse but effective. The throne is created my placing a simple chair on top of a table, and the main set design element is a Henry V’s family tree painted in white upon the black floor (characters occasionally break the third wall and use the floor design to point out their bloodline claims to the throne).
Bring Down the House delivers a palatable version of one of Shakespeare’s denser, infrequently staged history play sagas. It might be a bit much for the casual theatergoer, but Game of Thrones has proven there’s an audience for backstabbing royal drama. As for Upstart Crow Collective’s female casting, the standout element is how natural everything feels. None of the relationship dynamics shift. Everything still falls into place. There’s never a thought paid to how anything could better (or even different) with a man occupying any of the roles, offering further evidence in support of casting outside the rigid structures of Shakespeare and other playwrights' male-dominated scripts.
Bring Down the House
Thru Mar 12, Center Theatre, $31–$50