For four centuries, directors and theater companies have pursued an essence of Shakespeare that, once distilled into a potion appropriate to the age, releases the elusive spirit of the original. For Naked Shakes, the text-driven, actor-centered Shakespeare program that UCSB’s Irwin Appel has helmed for the past decade, this pursuit has until now meant deft and highly engaging barebones annual productions that typically show up around Labor Day.
This year, however, that is all changing. With The Death of Kings, a new, two-part, five-hour adaptation of eight history plays, Naked Shakes has leapt with abandon into a new and considerably more ambitious mode. Beginning on February 19, UCSB’s Hatlen Theater will overflow with three weeks of epic theater, as a cast of more than 50 and a creative dream team collaborate first on Part 1, I Come but for Mine Own, which will play by itself on the opening weekend, and then again on March 1-6. Part 2, The White Rose and the Red, opens on February 26-27 and then returns for March 2-6. Theatergoers who wish to see the shows in succession on the same day can do so on March 5-6. The director assures that the two parts are entirely understandable on their own and could be seen in either order with equal enjoyment.
None of this would be happening if Appel had not worked for more than a year to create this new adaptation, which shrinks the overall length of the eight plays involved — Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III — by 75 percent. But now, as the massive undertaking moves to the stage, Appel is in director mode, asserting that it is “extremely important for everyone involved with the project to feel ownership,” and adding that he “would not have conceived of or composed this without the team of people in the UCSB Theater department.”
The list of participants is long, and includes not only every senior in the BFA program but also most of Appel’s colleagues, many of whom — like Jeff Mills, Simon Williams, Joe Caldwell, Brian Harwell, and Michael Morgan — will perform. Perennial Independent Theater Award honoree James Connolly created and will perform the music, Jenny Mercein is assistant directing, Christina McCarthy choreographed the movement, and Ann Bruice designed the costumes. UCSB professor of acting Anne Torsiglieri will play the role of Falstaff.
So, why this project now? The question could be answered in multiple ways. Perhaps the easiest way is by analogy to the length and rewards of binge-watching any one of the great television series of recent years. One poster for The Death of Kings that I saw even acknowledges this explicitly with the tagline, “Because Game of Thrones isn’t back until April.” With all due respect to HBO, one could argue the appeal, never mind the value, of this project goes considerably further than that. First, as Appel explains it, there’s the excitement of “trying to engage people in something they’ve most likely never seen before, yet that is relevant to our time.” Certainly, this season of presidential election fever presents an unusually opportune moment in which to revisit the greatest literary study ever made of the perils of succession and the pitfalls of ambition.
Finally, there’s the extraordinary connection that this project can potentially create between this group of young actors, their teachers, and our community. While one hopes that all of us will have many more experiences with Shakespeare, it’s unlikely that any of us will ever see the birth of something like The Death of Kings again. For tickets and information, visit theaterdance.ucsb.edu or call 893-2064.