After more than 25 years at the helm of Sweet Briar’s theater program, Bill Kershner embraces the challenge — and the fun — in adapting a Shakespeare history for a cast made up mostly of women. Take, for instance, “Richard III,” Sweet Briar Theatre’s fall production, which opens Saturday, Oct. 19. Shows will be performed in the College’s Murchison Lane Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19, 24 and 25, and at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 20, which will be sign-interpreted.
The Bard’s history plays — “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” “King John,” et al., favor deeply masculine roles, even for a playwright working in a time when all actors were men and female characters were played by boys. But “Richard III,” Kershner points out, is one of Shakespeare’s longest plays and is routinely shortened for audiences. Usually, it’s some of the scenes for women characters that are cut, he says.
“I’m keeping all the terrific women’s scenes that even people who’ve watched ‘Richard III’ several times before probably haven’t seen.”
Women’s roles include Lady Anne played by Katherine Hoyt ’15, whom Ron Hebert’s Richard cajoles into marrying him despite having killed her husband and his father, the deposed King Henry VI. Kershner describes it as “one of the classic gall scenes of all time.”
And there’s no skimping on senior Faith Frampton’s Queen Margaret, Henry’s widow, “who curses the heck out of everybody” in response to Richard’s treachery: “ … Hear me, you wrangling pirates, that fall out / In sharing that which you have pilled from me! … Long die thy happy days before thy death. … ”
To orient the audience, Kershner begins the action with Richard murdering Henry VI and his son, Edward of Westminster. They are gunned down. The director set the play in World War I England for several reasons, not least for the cool visual and sound effects — such as strafing from a passing aircraft — he’s asked the stage crew to orchestrate.
In Shakespeare’s telling, Richard is a foul, deformed character who thrives in war. He covets the crown of England and is willing to murder for it. With his oldest brother, King Edward IV, already near death, Richard has his middle brother, Clarence, imprisoned and killed. When the king dies, his young sons and a bevy of their supporters also become Richard’s casualties. Their ghosts return to haunt him on the eve of his own death in a battle fought to dethrone him just two years into his reign.
Local actor Jared Anderson, a veteran of many Sweet Briar Theatre productions, plays Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond, who leads the rebellion against Richard — a depiction of events that effectively ended Britain’s real-life Wars of the Roses. It’s interesting to note that the real Richard’s remains were found last year under a parking lot in Leicester.
To fill out the large cast, Kershner has tapped some experienced upperclasswomen —such as senior Sarah Müth (“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” and “As You Like It”) as Queen Elizabeth — but he’s excited about promising newcomers, too. First-year Amber Boyer is one of those playing a woman in a role written as a man.
“My character, Rivers, went from being the hot-headed, worried, gullible, protector of his sister to being a sharp-tongued, sensitive, still-gullible, sister of the queen,” says Boyer, who is making adjustments to accommodate the change.
“With how my part is written, it is difficult not to act as a man would be expected to. … I find myself making difficult choices in tone and reaction while speaking my lines. If anything, it presents an interesting challenge and I look forward to hearing what people think of my and my co-actors’ performances.”
Tickets for the show go on sale Monday, Oct. 14. Admission for non-SBC patrons is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $5 for students and free for SBC community members and children younger than 12. In addition, a final dress rehearsal will be held Oct. 18 with free admission for all students and teachers. Call (434) 381-6120 or email [email protected] for reservations. To purchase tickets by credit card, visit www.lynchburgtickets.com.