A young man in a t-shirt and black jeans listlessly taps a soccer ball against a colorful backdrop, his black shoes sharply contrasting the neon floor beneath him. His eyes are downcast, but mine are curious — I must watch him, for he is there to be seen. Another man, this one dressed in gardener’s garb and armed with an oversized pair of shears, plods near him, inspecting false flowers on bushes that have never lived. Yet I believe him when he concernedly examines the white and red roses, trimming carefully around their thorns. More simply dressed people flood onto the stage, joining in the first man’s soccer game, blissfully unaware of the larger game they’ll be playing for the next few hours, the one that I and a theatre full of others have come to observe.
This is Glory, the first in a three-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI tetraology. Over the weekend of Apr. 5-8, this two hour and forty-five minute play took to the Empie stage, bringing along with it an intriguing mix of a four-hundred-year-old tradition and a modern perspective as devised by theatre professor Holly Cate. Beginning in 1993, Cate’s desire to give Shakespeare’s work new life has resulted in a number of different incarnations of what is now “Glory,” spanning from workshops in New York City to a college in Ohio to even a production on a smaller scale at Muhlenberg .
“During the first phases of my work on the piece, in 1994, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda happened, and I began to look at the anatomy of civil war that Shakespeare so deftly outlines in his plays differently,” said Cate. “Here I was, looking at the world around me and seeing Shakespeare’s plots play out in Bosnia and Rwanda. It was eerie and important. What began as a cool project started to become a way of understanding the world I was living in … By the time I arrived at Muhlenberg as a faculty member, I knew I wanted to make the piece a reality … We actually produced a version of ‘Glory’ back in 2009 here in the Chapel and in Empie as a Community Performance Ensemble. That production had its moments, but it was a struggle from start to finish for a variety of reasons, and I completed that journey feeling like I still hadn’t found the storytelling idiom that the piece needed.”
Cate’s fellow theatre professor Jim Peck then challenged her to condense her original four plays, which ultimately resulted in Cate’s discovery of the Clowns, characters that help guide the audience through the show and serve as physical metaphors for some of the action within it.
“The Clowns are probably the biggest difference between my adaptation and Shakespeare’s original,” Cate said. “I’ve also taken one of the central male characters — Warwick, the King maker — and made her a woman. The Henry VI plays are some of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, and, as such, are laced with contemporary English propaganda guaranteed to endear Shakespeare to his royal patrons. They were the action movies of Shakespeare’s time, full of larger than life characters and gripping battle scenes. Actually, many, many battle scenes – too many. Much of my work has been to strip out the propaganda that no longer resonates with a modern American audience and to refocus the story on the terrific characters and their brutal battle for power.”
For me, the story of the Clowns was the true story of Glory — told in mostly plain language and through characters whose actions appeared far less scripted and formal than those of the established members of Shakespeare’s canon, the Clowns reach through to the viewer and help explain what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen as the story progresses. Though sometimes their confusion only exacerbated my own, they were overall extremely welcome additions to the dense original text.
Although the Clowns often serve as comedic relief by dancing, drinking, and donning pirate costumes, they were also central to several of the most impactful and gut-wrenching dramatic scenes of the play. In Act II, for instance, two drunken Clowns, played by Christian Gutierrez ’18 and Elizabeth Stater ’21, engage in a playful fight, throwing their pints of beer at each other’s heads as they attempt to drown out the fear of impending battle. The remaining clowns form two camps, each backing one opponent, and supply the fighters with increasingly dangerous weapons, laughing and drinking all the while. Finally, the conflict and merriment come to a horrifying end when Gutierrez’s character stabs Stater’s with the pair of gardening shears, causing her to collapse at his feet. This death, unlike some of the others that the clowns suffer in the show, is permanent. Gutierrez slowly falls to his knees and looks up, fixing the audience with such a look of anguish that we can’t help but give one back.
Though this aspect of the show was extremely effective, illustrating the inner conflict and plots of the nobility through characters that the audience could understand and identify with, some aspects were admittedly less so. The show was filled with ambient music, which usually but not always accompanied characters’ conversations. Though I enjoyed the soundtrack when it consisted of instrumental songs that served to escalate the tension of the piece, such as when the young King Henry (expertly played by Chris Barron ’18) and several other characters held tense discussions to a minor track with a driving beat, at other times the music distracted me from the story or seemed to cheapen moments of real dramatic impact and trauma.
Still, the show drew me in, particularly through the stellar performances of the actors. Act II was especially successful; I felt compelled to listen closely to both the Clowns and the Shakespearean dialogue, eager to keep up with a plot that continued to deteriorate in the best way possible. The stage combat was impeccably executed — theatre lecturer Michael G. Chin’s “violence” credit is no joke, and the actors, particularly Drew Maidment ’18 as Talbot and Laine Flores ’20 as Joan, took on the massive challenge of engaging in realistic swordplay with results that were spectacular to watch. The plotting couples of the play, the Duke of Suffolk and Margaret of Anjou (Chris Torres ’18 and Sophie Pulver ’20, respectively) and the Duke of York and Warwick (Xavier Pacheco ’19 and Lauren McGinty ’18, respectively) were delightfully diabolical. Among the Clowns, Posie Lewis ‘20’s dark, twisted persona lent the production a valuable sense of mystery and suspense. The caliber of acting showcased in this production was certainly its highlight, giving a wide variety of Muhlenberg students a chance to shine.
Incredible acting aside, Glory has incited an almost unprecedented level of polarization among its audience members, with opinions ranging from high praise to deep uncertainty. One audience member who wished to remain anonymous expressed that while their opinion of the performances given was indisputably high, other aspects of the production did not quite achieve the same level of success.
“I feel generally neutral about Glory. There are some aspects of the show that I really enjoyed, and others that I found problematic or confusing,” the viewer said. “I personally had some trouble with the directing and the general plot; I felt like it was difficult to follow and found some of the lines unclear. I also thought some of the sensationalized elements of the show were unnecessary (i.e. the nudity or the sex scene). I didn’t completely understand why they fit into the story and felt like they didn’t add to my understanding or enjoyment of the show as a whole.”
Though these concerns seem to be shared by many students, others, such as another viewer who also wished to remain anonymous, feel that the show’s message and plot worked well to convey the deceit at the heart of Shakespeare’s tale.
“I absolutely loved Glory, though I’m slightly biased from listening to close friends involved in the production talk about the process of creating the show,” said this viewer. “As a fan of Shakespeare and Game of Thrones, Glory was definitely my cup of tea. It blended well-choreographed stage combat, corrupt politics, and morally questionable characters I wasn’t sure whether to hate or root for. The clowns, with their individually developed personas and moments of comedy interspersed with some of the most poignant moments in the show, were definitely a highlight for me … Glory not only chronicles the corruption of an innocent ruler but makes the audience complicit in this corruption through their support of it.”
In these dual camps of opinion, then, the production of Glory reflects itself. Whether you left the theatre wearing a red rose or a white one, there’s no denying that each and every audience member was made to feel something. The campus is talking, and Glory in itself has become yet another circle in the water. Will it ever ceaseth to enlarge itself? I suppose that’s a question to ask in Spring 2019, when the trilogy’s second part, O War, will storm the Empie stage.