MCLA women take on Shakespeare’s Henry V with an all-women cast

They can’t sleep. It’s nearly dawn, and they may not be alive by sunset. They are sitting in the dark in a rough camp, hungry and angry. They are going into battle outnumbered, and they have seen people die.

Two women from the same army division are talking to get through the night until the call comes to take up arms. They say their commander-in-chief should be here facing this. And a third soldier comes out of the night to start a political debate.

Their few words have blunt undertones: How can you support that jackass? I’m not fighting for him. I’ve got nothing to go back to — but if I go down, I’m going down hard.

They could be troops overseas. But the weapons on their hips are swords. And the third woman is King Henry the Fifth.

At MCLA in November (2016), a cast of nine women are re-casting Shakespeare’s most military history play. All but Henry play many roles, across all levels of society, and they all have roles with strength and influence.

Crysta Cheverie is Henry, but she is not acting as a man. She is also not putting on a corset and overskirts and playing a 15th-century woman. She is leading an army and a nation.

“We’ve decided we are not going to play them as men,” said director and associate professor of theater Laura Standley. “We’re approaching it as though these actors are putting themselves in that situation.”

The actors have found her approach exciting and revealing.

In this role, Cheverie said, she is learning how it feels to have power. Her character is taking command at about her age. She does not have many women to look to, she said, who are running an entire country.

“As a woman I’ve been taught all my life that if you’re aggressive, you’re mean,” she said. “Women aren’t supposed to be aggressive.”

Aggressive can mean assertive, forceful and dynamic — or hostile and destructive. Looking around them, the actors see men with power shown as the first and women shown as the second.

Joslyn Eaddy is playing the soldier-of-fortune Pistol, among other roles, and she enjoys it.

“Pistol is my favorite because he’s so aggressive,” she said. “It’s pretty funny to be playing a character like that as a woman. It’s not something we get to do without negative connotations. And for me especially, as a black woman, there’s a lot of negative feeling.”

She has to let go of the way people may react, she said, and play this character naturally, laughing and vigorous.

Erin D’Entremont feels this kind of tension in different ways, as the thieving Bardolph, and as Gloucester and the Duke of Orleans.

“A drunk, a soldier and a leader — they’re three roles you’re not expecting a woman to be,” she said.

Bardolph has surprised her as the hardest and most fun.

“You’re releasing a lot of your ambitions,” she said. “You don’t expect a woman to play a trashy drunk unless there’s a sexual element.”

“None of the characters, male or female, are sexualized,” agreed Lindsay DeWinkeleer. Her parts range from the King of France to the comic Hostess Quickly, and she has realized how good it feels to play characters who are not limited to manipulating someone else’s desire to make something happen.

Roles like this, the cast agreed, are as hard to find in contemporary American theater as in Shakespeare.

“We’re figuring out how to play the characters as ourselves,” D’Entremont said. “Why can’t a woman be a tough soldier and the right-hand person to the king or queen?”

In the U.S. today, a few can. As of 2014, the cast verified, three women four-star generals were serving in the U.S. military — Adm. Michelle Howard in the Navy, Gen. Janet Wolfenbarger in the Air Force and Gen. Ann Dunwoody in the Army. And in May 2016, Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson, as a four-star general, became the first woman to lead a top-tier U.S. warfighting command.

But they are still as rare as women in a Shakespeare play.

Among her roles, Brianna McDermott plays the heir to the French throne who sends Henry an in-your-face tribute of tennis balls — and she is also Alice, companion to Julie Castagna as Catherine, daughter of the French King Charles, in a rare scene between two women.

“Our scene is written differently,” McDermott said. “It’s comic relief. Airier. … The violence isn’t there.”

Catherine, at 14 years old, is learning she may have to marry the warrior leading an army into her country, Castagna said. And she knows only a few words of English. Even in its comic turns, the play has complexity.

Breana Gladu sees it in her role as Prince Hal’s brash, boyhood companion — Falstaff. She finds him most challenging, not in acting but in breaking the mold of gender.

“He’s loud and obnoxious,” she said, and in U.S. society, women seen as big are not seen as beautiful.

She is tall and broad-shouldered, and Falstaff is challenging her to embrace her body type and the humor in her roles: “as a woman, being proud and knowing you’re a complete badass without someone saying ‘she’s a bitch.’”

“It’s very important,” said DeWinkeleer, “not only because of the election, but because of what we’re representing on stage. We’re different types of women playing different types of characters, and we’re all equal. We put our toughest foot forward … we pick each other up.”

Keaira Person and Alex Sasso, the soldiers who talk with the disguised king, shared the excitement and open feeling of the group and the space. They relished costumes they can move in freely and a set stretching far backstage and into the air, where they can climb ladders, draw swords and charge into the breech — and act as women rarely act.

“It instills a sense of pride,” D’Entremont said. “I don’t think I’ve felt this proud in a long time of a work I’ve created. Proud in myself and proud in the people around me, that we can convey a message we desperately want to convey.”

And people around them are listening.

“My dad’s really excited,” Gladu said. “He’s the head baseball coach here. He’s excited because we’re all women playing these roles. … We have the chance to touch athletes who may see theater and women in a way they never thought possible.”

“We’ll put on our mascara and lipstick,” Cheverie said, “and go conquer France.”


In the photo at the top, Crysta Cheverie plays Henry V in a cast of women in an MCLA theater production in November 2016. Photo courtesy of MCLA.

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