The Play’s the Thing

The Play’s the Thing

Southwest Shakespeare Company hosts Naked Shakes at Taliesin West

By Niki D’Andrea

William Shakespeare’s history plays dramatize five generations of Medieval power struggles. If someone were to watch stagings of all of them in a row, they would be sitting still for almost 24 hours straight. That sounds like Medieval torture. Thankfully, professor Irwin Appel has taken eight of the Bard’s historical plays and, like a master DJ, pulled samples from each and woven them together into a 90-minute theatrical remix titled The Death of Kings: Seize the Crown. The production will be staged by UC Santa Barbara’s Naked Shakes troupe at Taliesin West from March 22 through March 31.

Appel, chair of the theater and dance department at UC Santa Barbara and a graduate of Princeton University and the Juilliard School, says The Death of Kings: Seize the Crown is a collection of stories with a common thread. Characters in the adaptation include Richard III and Henry V, and the motifs of murder, treachery and treason are inherent. But there’s also a deeper exploration of the machinations of power, the motivations of the masses, and how they apply to modern society.

“I definitely wanted the main ‘character’ to be the cycle itself – there really is no ‘leading role’ in the two plays,” Appel says. “At the same time, there are rich implications, especially as Americans in a country founded by rejecting the notion of a king. Questions arise: Do we as a society need a king? Do we crave one? Does having a king by definition invite violence and corruption?”

“I wrote the plays during the run-up to the elections, and I’m not trying to make a political statement here, but I found it fascinating that the Republican party, supposedly the party of limited government, was drawn to this figure Donald Trump who really wanted to be a king more than a president,” he continues. “I’m interested in what draws us to that.”

Appel spoke to North Valley magazine while in Prague, Czech Republic, which is where Roxane Smyer, director of strategic initiatives for Mesa-based Southwest Shakespeare Company (SSC), saw the production a year ago and proposed bringing the play to Arizona. Betsy Mugavero, one of two producing artistic directors for SCC (the other is Quinn Mattfeld), says the company is trying to make other audiences aware of Southwest Shakespeare by bringing in groups from other places and hosting productions like The Death of Kings: Seize the Crown.

“What’s exciting about this particular play is you get the greatest hits of Shakespeare, which is sort of like the greatest hits of English history,” Mugavero says. “It would be like a play that includes all the presidents of the United States. You get all these characters in dramatic context.”

The UC Santa Barbara troupe’s “Naked Shakes” moniker has nothing to do with nudity, Mugavero stresses, but is an allusion to the bare-bones production style they employ – no elaborate costumes, intricate sets, or distracting props. This allows the dialogue to take center stage and shine.  “It’s 13 actors using their bodies to tell a story. You get to fill in the blanks,” she says.

Taliesin West provides the perfect setting for such a stripped-down production, Mugavero says. “In Shakespeare’s time, we had limited theater space,” she explains. “This theater in particular is so great because it lets the text stand out – which is what you want with Shakespeare. If there are too many technical elements, it obscures the text and people don’t pay as much attention to the text.”

And as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “The play’s the thing. Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Appel says distilling eight monarch-focused history plays into one production was no easy task, especially when it came to the finish.

“The most challenging aspect for me was formulating the ending. The final play in The Death of Kings is Richard III, and in that play Richmond saves the day and unites the kingdom, becoming King Henry VII,” Appel says. “However, King Henry VII was not a particularly special king; in fact, he’s more notable for being the father of Henry VIII. So I didn’t want to convey the feeling that Richmond will set everything right. I wanted somehow to find an ending that fits the whole cycle. I am still open to tinkering with it!”

The Death of Kings: Seize the Crown will be performed at various times March 22-24 and March 29-31 at Taliesin West, 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard, Scottsdale. Tickets cost $35. For more information, call 480-435-6868 or visit swshakespeare.com.

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