Strange Eventful History

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

The Independent Shakespeare Company’s new play, Strange Eventful History is based on the British dynastic struggles which led up to and comprised The Wars of the Roses. The text is mostly Shakespeare, with a touch of Marlowe and a framing device devised by the company. If this sounds dry and academic, Strange Eventful History will convince you otherwise.

With the house lights still up, we are greeted by the inscrutable Stage Manager (Sam Breen) and welcomed to the invited rehearsal for Richard III. His announcements are cut short by an offstage rant from The Actor (David Melville). His petulant curses and the Stage Manager’s long-suffering look tell us all we need to know about this relationship. Once The Actor appears, he discovers that the actress playing Queen Margaret has gotten a better paying gig and that the director has found something better to do that day than rehearse. Could either of these desertions be due to The Actor’s diva temperament?

The Ingenue (Erika Soto) arrives a few minutes late, owing to a breakfast burrito run. She is supposed to take over the part of Queen Margaret, despite the fact that she is completely miscast. Once she starts her first speech, it is immediately apparent that she knows nothing about the historical background animating her character. When she questions her motivation, the Actor sighs and begins to sketch England’s knotty royal family tree and its ruthless quest for ultimate power in the 14th and 15th Centuries. He generously begins his history with Edward II, hence the Marlowe excerpts, and continues through Shakespeare’s history plays to Richard III, with the three performers playing all the roles.

The contemporary scenes have the feel of a very personal creation, and one senses that the characters are, perhaps, exaggerated caricatures of the performers. And, while it is best not to question the authenticity of some of the details in the framing device, the rehearsal background allows the complex tale to unfold with crystal clarity and adds a welcome note of irreverence to the proceedings. It is fun to watch The Ingenue puncture The Actor’s all-too-evident ego and to then witness her shock when she discovers that he is actually a “real actor” because he had a TV series.

Joseph Culliton’s direction is skillful, and he uses a sure sense of dramatic pacing to guarantee that the astounding number of facts imparted during the play never feel like a lesson. Melville’s Actor may seem a bit of a pompous blowhard, but he certainly knows his English history. And how to play Shakespeare. In the best tradition of Shakespearean performance, Melville clearly delineates all six of the kings he plays throughout the evening with nothing but his voice and body. Breen perfectly embodies the Stage Manager’s hauteur and his acerbic tongue, while Soto brings an easy charm and a contrasting contemporary energy to the piece.

George RR Martin has been upfront about using The Wars of the Roses as a direct inspiration for the Game of Thrones (House of Lancaster/House of Lannister), and the production has fun with some references to the series. But their true aim is to elucidate 150 years of English history through some of the most memorable lines ever penned. And, perhaps, to make you want to experience these plays in their entirety. Both aims are achieved.

Independent Studio    October 24 – November 22, 2015