At some point this month, Paula Suozzi will fly to the nation's capital to meet with a rather important person about decisions which will affect events occurring in the next three years.
As Artistic Director of Milwaukee Shakespeare, Suozzi is going to meet with Stephen Fried, current resident assisting director of DC's Shakespeare Theatre Company. Fried will be directing The Milwaukee Shakespeare production of "Henry IV Part One" next season. Opening in April 2007, the show continues as the second in a four-part series of productions to be staged once-per-year until the series wraps up in the 2008-'09 season.
Milwaukee Shakespeare completed a successful run of the "Richard II," the first part of the series, at the end of this past season.
Traditionally referred to as the "Henriad," Milwaukee Shakespeare is referring to the endeavor as the "Rebel and King" series. It's a collection of plays which Shakespeare may not have originally conceived as a series. Set in the 15th century, they cover roughly 50 years and the reign of three successive British kings.
Richard's abuses of power lead to the rise of King Henry IV and ultimately to his downfall with the rise of Henry V. Power. Ambition. The will of the people. The Henriad questions who really is fit to rule in a world of people who are so tragically human.
"It's such a powerful discussion to be having right now at this time in history," says Suozzi, "Audiences were coming out of 'Richard II' with their heads filled and desperately wanting to talk about what was happening in the world today and compare it with what just happened on stage."
The last time the Henriad had been presented in a high-profile production was during the lead-up to the United States' invasion of Iraq. The Trinity Repertory Company in Rhode Island recently performed a somewhat truncated three-part version of the series in rotation. While Trinity's effort was well received, some had criticized the scope of its ambition barreling over the performances of individual actors. Trinity's commitment to the Henriad was considerably different from Milwaukee Shakespeare's; doing all four in succession over four seasons is unprecedented.
Trinity performed all three of its shows in the same season using different directors with similar casts. Milwaukee Shakespeare will likely feature four different casts and four different directors, with each production being treated as a stand-alone story fitting into a larger series.
"I'm really approaching the individual play on its own terms," says Fried. "(I'm) making the choices that seem best suited to this play regardless of what choices Alec made for Richard II."
The vision for director Alec Wild's "Richard II" this past year included period-ambiguous costuming and a minimalist set design. Fried takes the visual aspect of Shakespeare into more traditional period-style costuming for "Henry IV."
According to Fried, this was less of a conscious decision to set the play in "Shakespeare's notion" of the 1400s. It was more of a decision "not to take it out" of that period. This type of decision is representative of a very delicate process of building a production that is distinctly different from its preceding chapter while fitting into the larger series.
Everything is changing from one production to the next. This is partially a practical consideration for the time which passes between plays. While talented actor Matt Daniels played the man who would become Henry IV in the original production, a different actor will play him in April.
"Matt would be great as Henry but he won't be able to do it because of his age as an actor," says Suozzi. "Matt Daniels cannot go on to play Henry IV because he would really need to age 15 years to play the role in the next play."
One man already slated to return to his role from "Richard II" is Michael Pocaro who played the Earl of Northumberland, a prominent supporting character. He returns to the role in April. Pocaro seems quite interested in following through.
"I enjoyed a lot of personal success in 'Richard II,'" Pocaro says, "By that I mean I felt very grounded in the character his place in the big scheme of things. It's a kind of Zen; letting go of more technical concerns and immersing yourself in the adventure."
The character returns in the second part of "Henry IV," which Milwaukee Shakespeare will stage during the 2007-'08 season. Will Pocaro return a third time?
"Paula Suozzi expressed a lot of enthusiasm about my carrying the role through (part one) and even (part two)," Pocaro says, "but an actor learns to take even that kind of enthusiasm with a grain of salt. Anything can happen."
The Milwaukee Shakespeare's Web site is milwaukeeshakespeare.com.