A tribute to Brave Spirits as it calls off Shakespeare’s histories due to COVID

It is impossible not to admire the passion and commitment of these theater artists.

There are certain theater experiences that you look forward to with extraordinary excitement. Brave Spirits Theatre’s Shakespeare’s Histories 2020 was one of them. To their credit, Brave Spirits, under the visionary leadership of Artistic Director Charlene V. Smith, was able to produce the first four history plays, The King’s Shadow (Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth Parts I and II, and Henry the Fifth) before COVID-19 closed Henry the Fifth just before opening night. This tetralogy was deeply compelling, providing moments of high drama, humor, and visual excitement. Brave Spirits’ work was especially innovative as well, embodying Smith’s feminist emphasis and analysis of the influences of gender and race in American society.

Brave Spirits was poised to make history as the first professional American theater company to mount full productions of all eight histories and perform them in repertory. BST’s Smith was set to become the first woman in the world to lead such a cyclical staging.

Graphic design by Jessica Aimone. Photography by Justin Schneider.

Sadly, now comes news that the second tetralogy, The Queen’s Storm, including the three parts of Henry VI, and Richard III, has been canceled due to COVID-19. Consequently, the summer of 2021 season, in which all eight plays would run in repertory, will not take place.

I was fortunate enough to see two of this year’s offerings, Richard the Second and Henry the Fourth, Part II. I was struck at once by the strong company feeling among the cast. Everyone gave their absolute best, and everyone made a singular contribution.

In their first venture, the magnificent Richard II, I will never forget my growing sympathy for Gary DuBreuil’s superb Richard, as he became more and more alone, diminishing from a Sun King into a King of Snow. As Queen Isabel, Caroline Johnson displayed a tender attachment to Richard, and her sorrow at their parting was affecting and real.

Women replaced men in several key roles. Molly E. Thomas played Scroop, Caroline Johnson was the Groom, Lisa Hill-Corley and Annette Mooney were Gardeners, and Jacqueline Chenault was Richard’s follower Bagot. In some cases, the character itself was turned into a female, as when Hill-Corley was Lady Ross.

In Act IV, there was a hilarious duel. Almost everyone in the scene threw down a glove as a challenge. The Duke of Aumerle (Duane Richards) furiously denied any wish to murder Bolingbroke (glove). Lord Fitzwater (Michael Bannigan Jr.) accused Aumerle of lying (glove). Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland (Dean Carlson), echoed Fitzwater’s accusations (glove). As the gloves were flying, the insults kept coming, and we all laughed harder and harder.

Henry the Fourth Part II usually opens with an Introduction, performed by one actor, who recounts the malicious power of gossip to entwine itself around world events. Instead, we saw groups of performers whispering innuendo around the edges of the stage. This was eerily effective.

Ian Blackwell Rogers’ Falstaff was highly intelligent, a master of deception, and proud of his wit, which often verged on the sarcastic. Lisa Hill-Corley was a memorable Mistress Quickly, touching in her faith that, as he borrows more and more money from her, they will eventually marry. Jillian Riti was an amazingly athletic Doll Tearsheet.

The threat of war hung over all the proceedings. Falstaff, with his ensign Pistol (a rambunctious John Stange), was ordered to muster a group of soldiers for the front; unsurprisingly, bribes were involved. The recruiting episode, one of the funniest in Shakespeare, was graced by the presence of several hapless candidates: Mouldy (Carlson), who was not happy to hear he was “ready to be used up,” the slender Shadow (an amusingly shy Johnson), Wart (DuBreuil), Feeble (Bannigan Jr.), and Bullcalf (the ubiquitous Stange).

In the countryside, where the scene occurs, Falstaff met his old friend Justice Shallow (Tom Howley) and his colleague Silence (Hill-Corley). Howley and Rogers were delightfully funny as they reminisced about their “wild” youth.

Fight Director Casey Kaleba’s talents enhanced the comedy. There was an engrossing scene, staged by Kaleba, where the Lord Chief Justice (Mooney) along with her lieutenants Fang (Bannigan Jr.) and Snare (Riti) attempted to arrest Falstaff. A giant net ended up on various characters’ heads. At one point, all lined up with Falstaff at the center, staring at their tormentors with outraged innocence.

It is impossible not to admire the passion and commitment of these theater artists. Their goal was not only to create great theater but to make our society a better place.

On June 1, 2020 BST announced:

Brave Spirits Theatre stands with the protesters in our community and across the country in rejecting racism and police brutality. If you would like to find ways to get involved, we recommend seeking out the local chapters of social justice organizations, such as Black Lives Matter DC and SURJ NoVA.

On September 12, BST notified supporters that it has had to end its Shakespeare’s histories project:

Brave Spirits Theatre is devastated to announce that we cannot continue with Shakespeare’s Histories at this time. Given the long preparation time required, our small performance space, and the current COVID models, we are unable to guarantee the safety of our company and audiences on a timeline that would allow us to perform as scheduled.

Until we can safely perform in person, we plan to focus on expanding our antiracism and inclusion work, and we hope to continue our mission of exploring early modern theatre through a modern feminist lens in ways that are safe for our cast, crew, and audiences.

We’d like to thank the theatre community for supporting us through our unprecedented Histories project, and we join with our community in urging you to support the arts through this unprecedented time in our own history.

Surely some equally brave theater patron will step in to revive this remarkable project. DMV theater, are you listening?

BST’s announcement continued:

The board and artistic leadership of Brave Spirits Theatre is so proud of the work the acting ensemble and production and design team accomplished during Shakespeare’s Histories. Prior to the spread of coronavirus, this project was an unquestionable success. We were meeting fundraising benchmarks ahead of schedule, and the first four productions opened to positive reviews. Ticket buyers for the Histories came from 24 states, and the project sold more in the first 24 hours than any previous BST production. For the four plays of The King’s Shadow, the 18 members of the acting ensemble rehearsed for 590 hours, learned 8,914 lines, and portrayed 151 characters. The production team designed and created over 500 costume pieces, 160 props, and 48 set pieces, composed 21 pieces of music, choreographed nearly 18 minutes of fights involving 33 weapons and over 45 minutes of movement and intimacy choreography, and wrote 358 light cues. The Histories team were on their way to an American theatre first, made all the more remarkable by doing it on BST’s small budget size.

Please join BST in a hearty round of applause for the artists and administrators who worked on Shakespeare’s Histories: Abi Franklin, Amanda Forstrom, Annette Mooney, Brendan Edward Kennedy, Brianna Goode, Caolan Eder, Caroline Johnson, Casey Kaleba, Charlene V. Smith, Charley Cobb, Claire Kimball, Dean Carlson, Duane Richards, Emily MacLeod, Emily Sucher, Florence Babatunde, Gary DuBreuil, Hannah Fogler, Ian Blackwell Rogers, Jacqueline Chenault, Jason Aufdem-Brinke, Jen Katz, Jen Rabbit Ring, Jenna Berk, Jessica Aimone, Jillian Riti, John Stange, Jordan Brown, Jordan Friend, Joshua Williams, Justin Schneider, Kavita Finn Mudan, Kimberlee Bolton, Kirra Sharpe, Kristen P Ahern, Lisa Hill-Corley, Mara Sherman, Marshall B Garrett, Megan Behm, Megan Holden, Micaela Lell, Micaela Mannix, Michael Bannigan Jr., Mitchell Parker, Molly E. Thomas, Nick Hansen, Nicole Ruthmarie, Paige C Washington, Robert Garner, Ryan Musil, Sydney Moore, Tom Howley, Yaritza Pacheco, and Zach Brewster-Geisz.

We celebrate the considerable accomplishment of rehearsing and opening the four plays of The King’s Shadow in 2020 and the preparation and discussions that were already underway during the table work process of The Queen’s Storm. Over the next few months we hope to find ways to share and commemorate these accomplishments with our audience. We are so grateful for your support and belief in this epic project.

Donations to help cover Brave Spirits’ costs until such time when it is safe to return to live performances may be made here.

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Sophia Howes
Sophia Howes has been a reviewer for DCMTA since 2013 and a columnist since 2015. She is a playwright and director. An early draft of her play Southern Girl was performed at the Public Theater-NY, and two of her plays, Rosetta’s Eyes and Solace in Gondal, were produced at the Playwrights’ Horizons Studio Theatre. She studied with Curt Dempster at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where her play Madonna was given a staged reading at the Octoberfest. Her one-acts Better Dresses and The Endless Sky, among others, were produced as part of Director Robert Moss’s Workshop-NY. She has directed The Tempest, at the Hazel Ruby McQuain Amphitheatre, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Monongalia Arts Center, both in Morgantown, WV. She studied English at Barnard, and received her BFA with honors in Drama from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where she received the Seidman Award for playwriting. Her play Adamov was produced at the Harold Clurman Theater on Theater Row-NY. She holds an MFA from Tisch School of the Arts, NYU, where received the Lucille Lortel Award for playwriting. She studied with, among others, Michael Feingold, Len Jenkin, Lynne Alvarez, and Tina Howe. Her father, Carleton Jones, long-time Real Estate Editor and features writer for the Baltimore Sun, inspired her to become a writer.

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