There will be blood (and heavy metal) at the Majestic’s “Wars of the Roses”

by | Sep 15, 2022 | Arts and Entertainment | 0 comments

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Choose your side carefully: Are you with the Yorks, with their white-rose emblem, or with the Lancasters, with their red roses? The Majestic’s “Wars of the Roses” condenses Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” plays into one occasionally bloody production. (Photo courtesy of the Majestic Theatre.)

“William Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses” didn’t turn out to be the play Rachel Kohler thought it would be when she first started working on it, more than four years ago.

Kohler, who adapted Shakespeare’s three “Henry VI” plays and directs the production at the Majestic Theatre, originally wanted to trace the story of Margaret of Anjou, the French woman who marries Henry and who goes through a remarkable transformation over the course of four plays – the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III.”

But a problem emerged as she was working on the texts: “Margaret doesn’t really get a satisfying ending in ‘Richard III,’” she said. “I wasn’t sure what to do with that. And the more I was reading the ‘Henry VI’ plays, the more I remembered how much I loved them, and how fun the story of the Wars of the Roses itself is.”

The Wars of the Roses were a series of civil wars fought over the throne of England in the mid-15th century between two rival houses – Lancaster and York. Shakespeare wrote about the wars roughly 150 years after they occurred; when he wrote, the same issues regarding royal legitimacy and political stability were again of vital interest in England as Queen Elizabeth I moved into old age without a direct heir.

So Kohler, program assistant at the Majestic, refocused her efforts on just the three “Henry VI” plays, working to combine the trilogy into one coherent production. (Theaters staging the plays increasingly wrap them into one – or sometimes two – productions instead of three separate shows.)

Kohler’s editing task required a single-minded focus on the primary storyline.

“I had to be very intentional in that every single thing I kept only furthered the story of the wars,” she said. “And I could keep nothing else, like a lot of really interesting side plots.”

But the final product, which opens Friday at the Majestic for a two-weekend run, is a straightforward, fast-paced affair that Kohler said plays a bit like “Game of Thrones” or even a Marvel movie, with lots of action, a smattering of gore (with occasional severed heads) – and packed with the insults Shakespeare is famous for tossing off.

Then Kohler added a personal touch to the proceedings: It’s all set to a backdrop of metal music.

Part of her reasoning was practical: It was relatively inexpensive to adapt costumes for a heavy-metal look.

“Anything goes for costumes,” Kohler said. “You wear some black, you throw some spikes on, boom, you’re heavy metal. And I figured that that would be a lot easier than doing anything period.” Costume designer Annie Tuttle “had a blast designing things and just like grabbing weird stuff from the costume room and modifying it. Because so much flies with heavy metal.”

Also, it turns out that heavy metal is among Kohler’s favorite musical genres.

“So the idea of getting to integrate one of my favorite genres of music was very appealing,” she said. “And I had so much fun picking music to sample for all the moments of the play.”

A play with this much action requires careful attention to its fight scenes. Kohler turned to Jason Smith and Mike Brugger to work on choreographing the battles and teaching the cast members how to wield their weapons in realistic-looking but safe ways. (The swords used on stage are tipped and don’t carry an edge, but they still can pack a wallop if an actor makes a mistake.)

The final version of the play, however, isn’t quite as bloody as Kohler thought it might be originally, and there are logistical reasons for that.

“The costumes are so gorgeous that we really wanted to be careful with them. But also, if you get blood on the stage, you then have to clean it up before the next fight, or otherwise, it’s dangerous. And there are so many fights in the play. … So we’ve ended up having to be pretty conservative with our blood.”

Kohler is used to staging what she calls “bare-bones” Shakespeare productions, including an ingenious version of “Julius Caesar” in the Unitarian Universalist sanctuary in Corvallis a few years ago. “Wars of the Roses” is the biggest production she’s directed to date – and she understands that she, along with her cast and crew, have created something that might not sit well with some Shakespeare purists.

She’s fine with that.

In fact, she plans to make a speech before each performance, urging audience members to make noise. And she’ll be leading the charge: “I’m going to be in the audience every night hooting and hollering. … This is not like Shakespeare where everyone expects you to sit quietly and appreciate it.”

But she hopes audiences appreciate “Wars of the Roses” in a different way: She’s hoping audiences leave the Majestic saying, “That was a bonkers experience. That was not what I was expecting. That was like a weird rock show drag pageant.”

“It will be a highly unique experience that I think people will really enjoy,” she said. “Assuming they like rock ‘n’ roll and swords.”

If You Go

WHAT: “William Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses,” a production of the Majestic Theater.

WHEN: Sept. 16, 17, 23 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., with a pair of 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees scheduled for Sept. 18 and 25.

WHERE: Majestic Theatre, 115 SW Second Ave. in Corvallis.

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $11, $16 and $21; click here to buy tickets.

OF NOTE: The Majestic has rated the play “R,” suitable for adult audiences, mostly because of violence. But director Rachel Kohler said the violence in the final version of the play has been toned down somewhat and thought a PG-13 rating would be a better fit.

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