In my humble opinion, ol' Billy Shakes was at the top of his game in his history plays. He didn't need shipwrecked twins, lovers' suicides, or women dressed as men to break his audiences' hearts and boil their blood. The histories are fantastic stories, and none are better than the Henry VI trilogy, one of the greatest, underappreciated, political revenge tales ever told, with drop-dead gorgeous poetry, gory fights, and sultry love scenes. Unfortunately, to watch all three plays consecutively takes some nine hours and is guaranteed to bruise your behind (believe me – I've done it).
Luckily, the indefatigable Beth Burns of the Hidden Room Theatre Company has brought fair Austin a precious gift: the whole trilogy in a mere four hours, as performed by a marvelous assemblage of the finest actors in town (and a few from across the pond). This is Edward Hall and Roger Warren's brilliant Rose Rage, a slashed and burned presentation of Shakespeare's language that retains all the most fertile parts of the horrific royal feud and neatly trims away the overgrowth.
Though you might consider brushing up on your 15th-century British royal genealogy before you arrive at the mysterious Masonic lodge downtown, the story is crystal clear, even with generous cuts to the text. This is partly due to the supple eighteen-member ensemble, which maneuvers effortlessly through dense verse and dozens of costume changes; wound with palpable tension, the actors create and maintain (for the entire four hours) the plays' exciting, high-stakes world. Their most impressive accomplishment is likely a testament to Burns' direction: The company relies on language rather than gratuitous emotion to deeply embed smoldering anger, resentment, and distrust into the performance. The result is a finely nuanced rollercoaster of a theatrical experience; when an actor raises his voice, you know shit's getting real. I can only describe this calculated rage as mesmerizing.
What is most enchanting about this production, though, is not Ia Ensterä's seamless integration of space and set, nor the Baron's Men's majestic period costumes, nor the almost gratuitous body count, nor watching dudes kissing dudes (though these are all pretty awesome). Even if the phrase "four hours of original practices Shakespeare" makes you break out in hives, Rose Rage is theatre for everyone. Burns and company have effectively rendered detailed portraits of fallible historical figures; we pity, fear, and love them, even though none of the characters are heroes, really. And they teach us something, too – that answering measure for measure and blow for blow can only lead to destruction.
Whatever your relationship with the Bard, I implore you to pay the Hidden Room a visit. It'll melt your face off.
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