Irwin Appel has created something tremendous with the Death of Kings. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, Death of Kings condenses the bloody saga of civil war between the warring houses of Lancaster and York (eight of Shakespeare’s plays) into five hours of pulsating, theatrical turmoil. Death of Kings weaves Richard II, Henry IV (parts 1 and 2), Henry V, Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III, into a fast-moving onslaught of conflict and mayhem that ceaselessly emphasizes the play’s theme and title: the succession of royal lineage via death, murder, and dethronement. Come, Appel invites the audience, let us sit and tell sad stories about the death of kings.
Part II of Naked Shakes’ production of Death of Kings, The White Rose and The Red, begins with the story of King Henry VI (Anastasia McCommon), a gentle, pious youth who lacks the steely ambition of his grandfather, usurper King Henry IV, or the valiant warrior’s disposition of his father, King Henry V. Henry VI is unable to maintain stability in the realm, and the French resistance, lead by Joan of Arc (Joré Aaron), undermines the already crumbling English presence in France. A peace treaty with France sees the king married to Margaret of Anjou (Verenice Zuniga), but conquered lands are lost in the deal. This loss of territory angers the Duke of York (Brian Harwell) to rebellion, and he instigates the War of the Roses by declaring himself rightful heir to the throne. Thus begins decades of power struggle and mêlée between the royal houses of Lancaster and York.
Death of Kings is a sleek, modern experience of the War of the Roses, made resplendent with excellent production quality and performances. Minimalist sets keep focus on performance — the only real set piece is the throne, which is handled, caressed, and dragged about the stage by each character bent on wielding the power it represents. Lighting (by Vickie Scott) in bold, solid colors gave the stage (and the conflict) a sense of boundlessness — battlefields seemed vast, and castle halls seemed infinite. Jim Connolly, a one-man band, provided music and sound effects that fashioned everything from the thunderous pounding of charging soldiers, to the vacant echoes of ghostly voices. Fight direction by Jeff Mills allowed for ferocious swordplay and man-to-man combat.
Death of Kings featured an impressive cast, including McCammon as the meek and well meaning, but ultimately ineffective King Henry VI, and Brian Harwell is diabolical and proud as the ambitious Duke of York. Joré Aaron, as Joan of Arc, is light on her feet as a soldier infused with the benediction of the almighty, but unyielding and flinty as the young mademoiselle leading the French Resistance.
One of the most intriguing performances is by Jeremy Scharf as Richard III. Scharf rolled his hunched shoulder into battle, and danced fleetly through skirmishes despite Richard’s contorted, misshapen leg. Scharf’s compelling depiction of Richard proved sensual and enticing despite physical afflictions, and his scenes had a quality of horrible beauty as he, with ghastly grins of victory, kept the death toll on the rise. At the play’s open, Richard laughs in such prolonged, triumphant frenzy at the body of a slain soldier that his father must silence him with a clang of the blade. In that moment we see the sociopathic bliss within the festering sore of Richard’s character; Scharf embodies a Richard who can both seethe and soothe with the same words — a man with undeniable charisma and unyielding absence of empathy.
For those who appreciate Shakespeare’s form and style, Death of Kings is a beguiling, boiled-down reworking of the history plays that eliminates cumbersome details. It also serves as an appropriate introduction to the history plays to those less familiar with the works. Let us sit and tell sad stories of the death of kings — so says Charles Grant, a luxurious and haunting Richard II, in epilogue. He places the crown back upon his head and the saga ends where it began in Part I. Appel’s work, clearly a labor of passion, is a brilliant version of Shakespeare’s history of England; one that reminds us why Shakespeare is, to this day, still lauded as one of the finest theatrical storytellers of the age.