Bakersfield Community Theater has been on a roll this year, with a number of great productions. I haven’t been able to see all of them, but found I had one day I wasn’t playing a gig to go see this one.
Ah, the Henrys. Everyone knows Henry VIII, of course, and any Shakespeare fan likely has a fondness for Henry IV and Henry V. Henry VII is in Richard III, and Henry VI gets a whole three plays.
But what about the other Henrys? Specifically, how about Henry II? Everyone knows two of his kids, of course, because of the Robin Hood stories. Good old King Richard the Lionheart, and weasly little brother Prince John and all that came with them.
But who was Henry II? Well, some quick history here. The English monarchy kind of got going in the 9th Century, with Alfred the Great uniting much of what we now consider England (not including Scotland or Wales), but it didn’t really hold together until the 11th Century, and the Norman Conquest. 1066 and all that. William centralized power, and started the feudal system going in England, which really counts as the first true united England. William the Conqueror was succeeded by his two sons, first William II, then Henry I. Then came trouble. Henry I had only one child - a female, Matilda. He named her his heir, to great scandal, and much pearl clutching about women in power (and also the problem that she had married the future Holy Roman Emperor, so political complications.) A grandson of William the Conqueror asserted precedence, and this led to anarchy for a while, before he and Matilda compromised by putting her son, Henry II on the throne.
Henry II was a forceful and ruthless ruler, bringing Wales into his sphere of influence, but eventually feuding with the Church (and getting Thomas a Becket murdered) and France - remember that the Normans still ruled parts of Frances as well.
Oh, and Henry’s marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine - at that time, queen of France - having stolen her from her husband, Henry VII of France….this is getting complex, isn’t it? In any case, he had a bunch of kids with Eleanor, including Henry (who died before his father), Richard, Geoffrey, and John. At various times, the sons were at war with their father, and Eleanor along with them. Ah, you think your family is dysfunctional?
Which is what this play is about. The entire drama takes place in Henry’s castle in Chinon, France, where the family has all gotten together - in part so that Henry can name his successor.
This means that Eleanor is allowed to leave her imprisonment in London (can’t have wives trying to murder their husbands on the battlefield, can we?), the three surviving sons, and Alais, who is….um, this gets complicated too.
So, after Eleanor left Henry VII of France, he married Constance, who died giving birth to Alais. So that makes Alais Eleanor’s stepdaughter. And also, Alais is betrothed to Richard, to help cement an important political alliance. This contract was entered when Alais was age 8, and she went to live with Henry and Eleanor pending her coming of age. While not definitively established, it was rumored that Alais was being bonked by Henry, and even had a child by him. For purposes of this play, it is assumed that she is Henry’s mistress, but that they do not have a child.
There is also one more person present: Phillip II, king of France, who has come to insist that Henry fulfill the contract, and marry Alais to Richard. And Phillip is Alais’ half-brother, a younger sibling by Henry VII’s third wife. Got all that? And one more thing: there is some evidence suggesting that Richard was gay, although the speculation that he had an affair with Phillip is unlikely to be true. The play assumes it is, though.
That’s one heck of an awkward Christmas.
And that’s before you get to the core dispute in the play: Henry wants Richard to succeed him, while Eleanor wants John to be the next in line. And poor Geoffrey….nobody even mentions him.
To unpack the plot from there would be impossible. There are two and a half hours of scheming by literally everyone involved, plots and counter plots and constantly shifting alliances.
And the repartee - the wit is hilarious. Just a few lines:
John: "Poor John. Who says poor John? Don't everybody sob at once! My God, if I went up in flames there's not a living soul who'd pee on me to put the fire out!"
Richard: "Let's strike a flint and see.”
And this one:
“Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians!”
And this one:
Henry: “I've plotted and schemed all my life. There is no other way to be a King, fifty and alive all at once.”
“I'm vilifying you, for God's sake — pay attention!”
Too much fun, for sure.
This production was particularly fun because I know several of the people involved, and the rest are all veterans of the local stage - truly an all-star cast.
Let’s start behind the scenes: Jan Hefner has been a friend for several years now, and she is always a pleasure to see on stage. This time, she was directing. The set was created by Ronnie Warren, another long-time actor, director, and designer.
The royal couple was played by Xian (as Henry) and Julie Gaines (one of my favorite local actors in any role, this time as Eleanor.) The two of them had incredible chemistry, and so inhabited their roles as a couple in love and in hate with each other.
Josh Evans simmered his way through the role of Richard, the son who is so good at war and so frustrated with intrigue. He knows he is the best of the bunch, but only his mother can see it. Josh is a member of our book club, and I think I may have seen him in something else years ago, but this was my first time seeing him since our discussions of drama and literature particularly during Covid.
Perrin Swanson, who acts everywhere around town, and does lights, sound, and design on everything he isn’t in, as far as I can tell, played the much ignored Geoffrey. He nailed the sense of frustration that nobody takes him seriously or thinks of him as having any value. He is invisible no matter what he does.
Jordan Fulmer, after a recent run of playing good guys, returns to his typecasting (just kidding!) of playing the villain. Although everyone is a villain in this play, with the possible exception of Alais, who mostly wants to get to the end of the play alive and unmarried. (At least to Richard or John, both of whom she despises.) He simpers and whines his way through the role, complete with a very unfortunate bowl haircut and even less fortunate whimper.
Rounding out the cast are Brian Purcell as Phillip - he has grown into a wide variety of roles over the years we have watched him - and Maya Blackstone as Alais.
As I said, an all-star cast. Every role was excellent, and the ensemble chemistry notable. This last season at BCT has really been outstanding, from Blithe Spirit to The Importance of Being Earnest to 20th Century Blues. Bakersfield punches above its weight when it comes to the arts.