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EclecticPond's The Wars of the Roses 

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click to enlarge The Wars of the Roses's eight-actor ensemble includes Kate Homan, seen here in a promo photo.
  • The Wars of the Roses's eight-actor ensemble includes Kate Homan, seen here in a promo photo.

EclecticPond's Shakespeare festival is a great chance to level up your cultural literacy. The fest consists of eight of the Bard's history plays, each adapted to run approximately one hour each, and presented in repertory through June 28. I saw the first four last weekend and plan to go back for the all-in-one-day marathon on June 28; head to eclecticpond.org for a complete schedule.

Each show is like a TV episode in that it is full of brisk back-and-forth movement between settings and moods. But unlike most TV epics, these shows have the rich and uniquely engaging immediacy that is live, intimate theatre. The festival takes place in the Irvington Lodge, so when there's fighting, the rapiers flash just a few feet away from you, but when there's kissing, you're not so close as to see the actors' pores. The EP cast and crew pull off the many scene changes admirably with the help of a multi-level set and efficient costumes.

On the other hand, since it's not TV you can't pause and go back to re-watch the parts you didn't understand. And since there are only eight actors playing all of the roles - and, let's be honest, since it is Shakespeare - it is sometimes tricky to know what's going on. However, it doesn't really matter if you haven't seen or read or even Spark-noted all the original, full-length plays. (I haven't.) It also doesn't matter if you don't know your British monarchs. (I don't.) These adaptations drill down to what is most important between the fathers and sons, the friends and lovers. They make the essences intensely clear if not every detail.

You get a paper program with a synopsis of each play and a list of the characters, but I recommend that you don't try to refer to it during a show. Just listen carefully, pay attention to the costume changes, and go with the flow. The actors are skilled, Maria Souza's adaptations include the characters calling each other by name and for the most part, if someone is wearing a crown, he is the king of England. For the moment.

Speaking of the eight actors, I loved that three are women and that they play many of the male roles, too - a reversal from Shakespeare's time, when women weren't allowed on stage at all. The ensemble includes Matt Anderson, Frankie Bolda, Sarah Froehlke, Jeremy Grimmer, Kate Homan, Zack Nieditch, Carey Shea, and Zachariah Stonerock.

Each of the four pieces I saw - Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V - was complete and satisfying in itself but I'm glad I made time to see more than one. Seen together within one weekend they formed a sparkling kaleidoscope of history, literature, action, and emotion.

As I was leaving the theatre after the fourth I met two of the three directors, Thomas Cardwell and Polly Heinkel. (Catherine Cardwell is the third.) I asked them what they left out. "There's less about the secondary and tertiary characters' stories," Thomas said He said the directors and adapter had focused on the main, familial relationships because they wanted to show how all of these plays explore the right to rule, whether by inheritance or by force.

He also said that once the collaborators had given themselves the challenge of using only eight actors to play all of the roles, it informed the adaptation process, too. Two characters played by one actor couldn't be on stage at the same time, for example.

Between shows last weekend I walked across the street to the Legend Classic Irvington Cafe for dinner. I tweeted about the yummy, nicely-served meal and when the owner came over to thank me, he mentioned that he had enjoyed EP's popular 10 x 10: Brevity Is the Soul of Wit Shakespeare show last year. I enjoyed that show, too, but you should know that the Wars of the Roses festival is quite different. Other than the costumes, there are no references to modern times, no jokes other than Shakespeare's. I laughed a lot, but I cried often, too. "Heavy is the head that wears the crown" and there's something unbearably sad about a betrayed king that calls for an "Amen" to his "God save the king!" and gets only silence.

On the other hand, I now tell myself "Once more unto the breach!" when it's time to get out of bed and go to work.

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