At Trinity: By the Queen is compelling fare
Fiona Marie Maguire (left), Paula Plum (center), and Rachel Christopher (right), as Margaret 1, Margaret 3, and Margaret 2, respectively, in By The Queen at Trinity Rep. Photo: Mark Turek.
Trinity Rep has always been celebrated for its originality and daring. The risk of challenging audiences’ patience or viewers’ willingness to buy into a premise has never stopped the company from taking its best shot at creating innovative theater.
Embracing daring material and/or complex points of view have been fundamental practices in the company’s long and illustrious history. So the current production, By the Queen, should come as no surprise.
Whether it works as well as might be hoped remains, however, in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder.
Drawn (Trinity’s word) from Shakespeare, By the Queen was created by Whitney White, a 2015 graduate of Brown/Trinity Rep’s MFA program. She is an actress, a writer, and an award-winning director, who counts an Obie among her honors, and she will make her Broadway directorial debut this fall. Trinity’s production is the world premiere of By the Queen.
White has taken a particular interest in the women of Shakespeare. In this production she focuses on the role of Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s queen. According to Trinity Rep’s Artistic Director, Curt Columbus, Margaret has the longest and most complicated arc of any character in all of the Shakespeare canon.
From Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Richard III White compiles a script that focuses on the queen from her teens through her full maturity, where she emerges as an older and much wiser if embittered woman. Storied Trinity Rep company member Brian McEleney, a veteran actor, director, and teacher directs the play.
The device employed by White to create multiple perspectives on the character is to alternate Margaret’s scenes from the source material in Shakespeare with White’s own scenes reacting to the original events as voiced by the characters, now speaking as observers of their own actions.
For instance Richard III, played by Jeff Church, explains the historic and cultural context of marriage as portrayed by Shakespeare. Also Gloucester, who is played by Mauro Hantman, further contextualizes the interpretation of men and women in the original plays.
Margaret is depicted at three distinct stages of her life through the four plays. Three different actresses reflect the queen’s age and level of development through time.
Fiona Marie Maguire takes the part of Margaret 1, the teenage queen, inexperienced and insouciant, but clearly opinionated. In the final year of the Brown/Trinity MFA program, this is Maguire’s debut at Trinity.
Playing Margaret 2 is Rachel Christopher. It falls to her to represent Margaret as the angry, hardened, dangerous, and manipulative broker of power, at times murderous and treacherous.
“Cruelty is how we survived,” is a conclusion reached during her reign.
Margaret 3, the older, reflective queen is limned by Paula Plum. She is also making her Trinity debut. Her point of view is rooted in hindsight. As the mature woman, her job is to seek ways to reconcile the three stages of Margaret’s life, to find a way to merge the extremes of behavior that led to the character’s choices and failures.
Her challenge is to find a way to sum up the disparate actions and motivations that comprise her personality, to make a whole that does justice to the sum of its parts.
“We all have reasons for the bad things we do,” she offers.
Inevitably, there is dissonance between the sonorous cadence of Shakespeare and the contemporary tone and inflections of White’s own commentary. Interesting and provocative by turns, the play ultimately also grates a bit.
Despite its at times stilted syntax and intonation, the classic language of Shakespeare provides the actors with much opportunity to soar and declaim. Interspersing current day parlance offers stark contrast, but it also can create a sense of imbalance and disconnection.
One is left to wonder if the experimental feel of the concept doesn’t suggest it might be more effective to arrange the commentary and interpretation as distinctly separate. Might it not work to present Shakespeare’s presentation of Margaret at her different stages in Act I and then in Act 2 have the three actresses and the rest of the company of actors appear as themselves discussing, debating, and considering how the role of women is defined in relation to the expectations then and now?
Special notice must be taken of the work of Jeff Church as Richard III, Mauro Hantman in three roles, and the three women who play Margaret. Also, kudos to Taavon Gamble and JaQuan Malik Jones. The acting throughout is superb.
Fiona Marie Maguire as Margaret 1 in By The Queen at Trinity Rep. Photo: Mark Turek.
Rachel Christopher as Margaret 2, with Taavon Gamble as Suffolk, in By The Queen at Trinity Rep. Photo: Mark Turek.
Paula Plum as Margaret 3 in By The Queen at Trinity Rep. Photo: Mark Turek.
From my Journals
Written May 16, 2003 at 12:10 a.m. at home, the farm
At 11:14 p.m. last night (just 56 minutes ago) my mother and I picked our way over the side (south) lawn here at the farm house to witness a total lunar eclipse.
She was in her slippers. It was very dark and, at 85, with serious arthritis in her left ankle, I held her hand much as through the years of childhood she held mine, and together we marveled at the wonders of nature as we wobbled, unsteady, over the sod.
Written July 21, 2005, Home, the Farm, at 2 a.m.
An occasional lunch companion tells me a story about going (somewhat reluctantly) with an undertaker friend to Montreal, Canada to collect a body.
Upon their return to the funeral home in Woonsocket, Rhode Island the undertaker invited my lunch companion inside. He was not keen on the idea, but he acquiesced.
Once in the work area, he sought things to look at so as not to have to watch the procedure of preparing the body for viewing. The undertaker directed my companion’s attention to racks and racks of neckties and belts.
“There must have been 200 belts and 200 neckties,” said my lunch partner. The undertaker invited him to take one, but he felt odd doing so. Yet, he didn’t want to offend the man by refusing his offer.
So, he looked over a number of belts before finally settling on a heavy, thick workman’s belt.
"That was the one I wanted,” recounted my companion.
Then he continued. He explained how he took the belt home. He took it into the bedroom. There his wife had a dresser with finials on the back corners.
“I made a knot in a loop of that big old belt, and I hung it on that bureau. That thing stayed there a good 20 years.”
He paused. “It changed my life.”