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The Folger Spotlight

Hello, readers of the Folger Theatre Production Diary! My name is Louis Butelli. I was a contributor here during Folger’s recent production of Othello, in which I played Roderigo. Last week, I was asked if I would put together a new posting for “y’all,” if you’ll forgive the colloquialism. Obviously, I agreed.

There are several reasons for this:

1. I also played in Folger Theatre’s 2010 critically-acclaimed and award-winning production of Henry VIII, directed by Robert Richmond. Following its run at Folger Theatre, the excellent Alabama Shakespeare Festival booked H8 to play in rep for its 2012 season. I am currently in Montgomery, Alabama reprising my role as Henry’s own jester, “Will Sommers.”

2. It was thought that it might be of some small interest to you for me to talk a little bit about the experience of re-visiting a show from Folger Theatre, and a character with whom I’ve spent some time, which some of you may have seen, at a new venue.

3. After receiving 9 Helen Hayes Awards nominations for Folger Theatre’s work during 2011(Let’s-GO, Cyra-NO!), the huge success of The Gaming Table, and The Two Emilys’ incredible account here of that show, it was thought that the blog might now offer a brief palate-cleansing before launching into The Taming of the Shrew. I am beyond honored to serve as your “amuse-bouche” in advance of the next meal.

So! That said, here are some thoughts on re-visiting H8 at ASF…

There can be no doubt, Henry VIII is a difficult play. Believed to have been written in 1612-3, between The Tempest and The Two Noble Kinsmen, H8 is also widely believed to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as house playwright for the King’s Men. The two men’s styles, while similar to the ear, are different enough to provide some challenges for the actor. To be blunt, and to baldly state a personal opinion, Fletcher’s writing is weaker—the characters’ thoughts are circuitous, cloaked in run-on sentences and parentheticals, and tend to the rhetorical. This makes it, to be politic, harder for the actor to learn. Also, H8 is less play than pageant; it is a loving ode to the Tudors, an opulent display of courtly might, and is more episodic than it is a single theatrical unity. It’s almost a cliffhanger and, apart from the history books, there is no sequel.

Director Robert Richmond came up with an innovative device for sewing some of these disparate elements together and providing a framework for the evening: the character of Will Sommers, who does not actually appear in the play. Will was Henry’s court jester, and much beloved of the King. For our evening, Will delivers the prologue, and then proceeds to take on 8 other minor roles, including a deceitful surveyor, Cardinal Campeius, and an Old Lady friend of Anne Boleyn. Primarily, Will is a “guide,” or a “conduit” for the storytelling.

Photo © Adam Bintz

Having created the role of Will at the Folger in 2010, it has been fascinating to re-visit him, and the rest of the play’s inhabitants, in 2012 at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. If you’re in our neck of the woods now, or feel like a road trip, come and see us! We run through May 20th. Click here for tickets.

What struck me immediately, when we sat down to our first table read here in Alabama, was just how much we were inventing in the rehearsal hall and in tech for our production at the Folger. Between Robert and myself figuring out how to deploy Will Sommers, the sheer animal strength of Ian Merrill Peakes as Henry, the late nights composer Anthony Cochrane spent writing the original score as we rehearsed, and the numerous tweaks and adjustments constantly being made by costume designer William Ivey Long and his team, it felt as if we were literally creating a world from scratch. By the time we opened, I don’t think any of us had come up for air in weeks, and none of us were quite sure exactly what sort of baby we’d birthed. Fortunately, the audience, the press, and the Helen Hayes Awards judges decided that they liked our baby very much.

Another stroke of good fortune was the fact that ASF’s Producing Artistic Director Geoffrey Sherman came to see us and decided to add us to his season for 2012. He retained some key members of the creative team; Robert as director, myself as Will Sommers, Anthony Cochrane and his haunting score, and set/production designer Tony Cisek, who broadened the scale of his design, which was already magical at the Folger, to something truly epic for ASF’s 750-seat Festival Stage. We are also joined by an incredible team of actors, who were previously entirely unfamiliar with the production, and some fantastic designers: Phil Monat on lights, and Elizabeth Novak on costumes.

In approaching H8 for a second time, I have learned a bunch of new stuff in two different crucial categories: the play itself, and the production of the play. Here, to conclude, are a few thoughts on each.

THE PLAY: It’s not as bad as I thought! In fact, having the opportunity to think through the lines again with more leisure (I’d learned them once already) allowed me to both speak and listen to them without panic. They left me sort of entranced. Buckingham’s speech before his death in Act II, Scene 1 is chilling: “For those you make friends / And give your hearts to, when they once perceive / The least rub in your fortunes, fall away / Like water from you, never found again / But where they mean to sink you.” Also, where I had previously seen only panegyric, the Archbishop’s speech at Elizabeth’s christening in Act V, Scene 4 now seems to me quite haunting. Of the infant in his arms he says: “But she must die, She must. The saints must have her; yet a virgin, / A most unspotted lily shall she pass / To the ground, and all the world shall mourn her.” Ironically enough, both of those speeches are believed to have been written by John Fletcher. Sorry for doubting, John.

Photo © Adam Bintz

THE PRODUCTION: While one always feels a fondness and nostalgia for past successes, and while some actors (see also: me) are afraid of and resistant to change, we have really brought some exciting new things to the ASF production of H8. Where the Folger stage allowed a kind of titillating intimacy with the Royal Family, the stage at ASF requires a kind of hugeness and spectacle that feels immediately Royal in an incredibly epic way. Also, having gone through the process of invention-to-deadline with the Folger production, here we had the advantage of knowing certain things in advance. This allowed us the freedom to extrapolate a little bit on some visuals and thematic elements, and to take the time to tie up some loose ends from the last production.

Photo © Adam Bintz

Most importantly, though, I want to reach out with open arms and give an enormous metaphorical hug to the actors of both ensembles. It was an honor and a pleasure to create the piece with my friends at the Folger. It is a delectable treat to enjoy it in a whole new way with the amazing rep company at ASF where, in addition to H8, we are also putting on The 39 Steps, Travels With My Aunt, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Some last words, if the editors will permit me. I have mentioned my theater company here before. We are called Psittacus Productions, and our current show is the original musical CYCLOPS: A Rock Opera. Since I last wrote you, we have been nominated for 3 LA Weekly Theatre Awards (Musical of the Year, Best Adaptation, and Best Direction). Please wish us luck. Also, if it’s not too impertinent to say, it seems that Robert Richmond and I will be back at the Folger next season. Stay tuned for details.

Thanks for reading, and all the best!