Reviving Shakespeare in the galleries

Felicia Leicht will play Catherine and Lady Percy in the Welles "Five Kings" at the Art Museum.
Felicia Leicht will play Catherine and Lady Percy in the Welles "Five Kings" at the Art Museum. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 02, 2014

1938. Philadelphia. Critics savage Orson Welles' Five Kings, a five-hour compilation of Shakespeare's history plays; it closes, never making it to Broadway.

2014. Philadelphia. Revolution Shakespeare, a new experimental theater company (Jared Delaney, Tom Reing, and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen), dusts off the long-silenced script to revive it, this time in five episodes. These will be presented every Wednesday in July at 6 p.m., starting this week. Each subsequent episode will begin with a TV-style recap of last week's action, in case you missed it.

It gets more intriguing: Each show will be staged in a different gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

And, even better: It's free.

Happy 450th birthday, Shakespeare: The War of the Roses isn't over yet! (This news is for those of you who are not addicted to Game of Thrones, based on the selfsame War of the Roses. Good material is always good material.)

Welles never finished cobbling together the second half of his play about the remaining two kings, presumably another five hours' of stage time, which would have continued the saga from Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IVParts 1 and 2, and Henry V with the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III.

Shakespeare's plays form a magnificent epic of war, patriotism, loyalty, and friendship; there are goofy moments, romantic moments, thrilling moments, fierce and violent moments, and woven throughout there are heartbreaking moments of betrayal. The plays, director Reing says, are "the first long-form story in the Western world, a unique mixture of characters who are common folk and royalty."

At the center is Sir John Falstaff, the role Welles played, first onstage and then again in his 1966 movie using the same material, Chimes at Midnight. The film's title comes from the moving, and ambiguous, little exchange in Henry IV, Part 2 between Falstaff - fat carouser, nasty prankster, knight of the realm, and pal of Hal, who is soon to be King Henry V - and a minor character, a fellow carouser:

Falstaff: We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.

Shallow: That we have, that we have, that we have. In faith, Sir John, we have. ... Jesus, the days that we have seen!

In these five new productions, John Morrison takes the Falstaff role, filling the huge shoes of this larger-than-life character, not to mention Welles' considerable feet.

Director Reing undertook the formidable task of reducing the cast from Welles' 57 actors to Revolution Shakespeare's 11; he also had to divide the Welles script into five sections, finding the natural breaks in the story. Here's how it turned out:

No. 1 ends with rambunctious Hal (Akeem Davis) and his father, King Henry IV (Jared Delaney), reconciling.

No. 2 ends with the death of Hotspur, played by Sean Bradley, who is also the fight choreographer. In this scene, six swordfights take place simultaneously - presumably without laying waste to any art.

No. 3 ends with Hal's painful denial of his rowdy old friend Falstaff.

No. 4 ends with the famous "a little touch of Harry in the night" Agincourt battlefield speech.

No. 5 ends with the marriage of Hal, now King Henry V, and Catherine of France (Felicia Leicht).

The choice of the art in each gallery offers tantalizing comment on and counterpoint to the scenes, adding two directorial problems for Reing: Each gallery has a different acoustic, and each gallery has a different curator (some were receptive to this experiment, some not). Here are the venues:

No. 1, the Rotunda with van Gogh's Sunflowers.

No. 2, Gallery #255, 18th- and 19th-century European art (a long gallery to accommodate those choreographed swordfights).

No. 3, the American gallery that houses Eakins' The Gross Clinic, made more visually intense by its deep red walls and stained glass window.

No. 4, the Cloister.

No. 5, the French chapel (perfect, right?, for the delectable marriage proposal in two languages, a union that would, temporarily, join longtime enemies France and England under one king).

The throng is swelled by Corinna Burns as Mistress Quickly, and Dana Kreitz, David Glober, Ed Miller, and Adam Rzepka in various minor roles. Griffin Stanton-Ameisen is playing producer for this production, since he's also busy playing Hamlet in the Delaware Shakespeare Festival. Megan Slater is the Chorus, providing the luminous opening prologue of  Henry V, "O for a muse of fire."

This enormous and challenging project is sponsored by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was eager to find a project to celebrate the milestone of Shakespeare's 450th. It will provide fold-out seats for about 60 people, but since the galleries are open, others are welcome to stand and watch or wander through. Shows start at 6 p.m. and will last 45 minutes to an hour. The museum is open Wednesdays until 8:45 and admission, after 5, is "pay what you wish."

Revolution Shakespeare has big plans. Delaney says the company is committed to casting diversity "to reflect the audience we hope will come - but it has to serve the plays, it can't be just to do it."

The primary commitment, he continued, is to collaboration, and thus the museum venue suits their interdisciplinary mission. Their planned show for this year's Fringe Festival is called Kill Shakespeare, and is another collaboration with a visual arts medium - Conor McCreery's comic book of the same name.

RevShakes' version will be a radio play with projections, and then in early November they will reprise it for 2,000 students at the Free Library of Philadelphia's Central Branch.

"Is it canonical?" Delaney is asked.

He answers the question as his hero Orson Welles might have. "No. But it's fun."

See 'FIVE KINGS' on C6


THEATER

Revolution Shakespeare: "Five Kings"

6 p.m. Wednesdays, July 2 to 30 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Admission: Free. Information: 215-764-8100 or www.philamuseum.org/wednesdaynights

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