Nova Arts Project's ambitious War of the Roses actually works

Audacity, thy name is Nova Arts Project.

For its epic cycle of Shakespearean history plays War of the Roses, this feisty young theater company might also be called daring or innovative — certainly, downright fun. Nova has taken the eight most famous Shakespeare histories, given them to eight different director/adapters and bade them stage each of these problematic plays in 25 minutes or less. The same 11 actors appear throughout, and the same stark settings apply across the boards.

Group A (Thursdays and Saturdays) includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V. Group B (Fridays and Saturdays) includes Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3 and Richard III. That's a library full of English history to plow through. Any one of these complex dramas is complicated enough, with murderous fathers, sons, uncles, brothers, wives and cousins all conspiring for top dog. That the enterprise works at all is some sort of theatrical miracle.

Think of Nova's cycle as Elizabethan cabaret. The eight directors have conjured a little bit of everything and something for everyone. Yes, it's uneven, and a pair of editing shears should be employed, but the evening holds together. That, of course, has a lot to do with Shakespeare. No matter how you slice and dice him, the Bard remains supreme. Just to hear snippets is pleasure enough. How often have you seen any part of Henry VI?

The opener, Richard II, directed by Jennifer Decker and written by John Harvey, sets the template but is the bleakest. Dispirited and haunted, Richard II (Ryan Kelly) slumps on his black throne contemplating his cousin Bolingbroke's fateful return from exile, which predestines the king's doom. In the background, a series of photographs ironically mocks the worn-out king, while The Other Richard (Eddie Chevez) prophetically smashes vases containing the dynastic red rose (the House of Lancaster) and white rose (the House of York) with a croquet mallet. Kelly's look and attitude is the perfect picture of absolute power corrupted from within.

"A Little More Mascara" from La Cage Aux Folles ushers in Henry IV Part 1. Director Sara Patterson spins her tale with cheeky grunge as the "Bolingbroke Beauties" put on a show. Swishy Henry (Jon Harvey) wears a tiny tiara, pearl earrings and a Mummer's peacock headpiece as he rails against the opposition and his unprincely, wayward son Hal (Eddie Chevez), who's enthralled by the drunken wastrel Falstaff (Justin Dunsford, so lusty and lewd he must have stepped right off the Globe stage). Hal pulls up his spandex bodice as Hotspur (Bobby Haworth), Northumberland (Sean Patrick Judge) and Worcester (Miranda Herbert) prance around backstage, waiting for their chance to strike. As in Carrie, a bucket of slo-mo blood douses the fairy king, but the rebellious villains are dutifully dispatched.

Director Antonio Aguires III captures his vision of Henry IV Part 2 on film in what can only be described as soft gay porn. What this boy-beds-boy tale has to do with any part of Henry IV is beyond me, unless it's Aguires's weird take on Hal (Bobby Haworth) and Falstaff's (Michael Dunsworth) friendship and whoring. Not even Shakespeare suggested such a sexual pairing, but the bedsheets rumple artistically, lines of coke disappear up noses and there are lots of time-lapse shots of flowers opening. As flames lick across the screen, the movie bleeds into live action with some uncomfortably explicit, fiery violence, which might suggest the rebel leaders are treacherously executed by Prince John. Who knows? You can't tell the players without a program, so this is anyone's call.

Henry VI Part 3, directed by Philip Hayes, is anchored by Sean Patrick Judge's knockout comic performance as Margaret, the great she-wolf of France. It's the most consistent piece in the cycle and plain laugh-out-loud funny. In beret and greasy limp wig, a Gauloises hanging damply from his mouth, Judge vamps it up gloriously. When Margaret has York in her power, she taunts him and waves her cigarette like Cruella de Vil: "I'll kill you with secondhand smoke." Then there's the Lady Grey blowup doll and Henry (Brittny Bush) in exile inside a cardboard box, serenaded by a herd of sock-puppet sheep. It's so delightfully silly — Shakespeare would applaud.

Although Richard III is played for laughs with its "R" bling jewelry and Saturday Night Fever poses, Judge as Shakespeare's first complex villain is most serious indeed. Oh, Richard can boogie down with his fine Chicas (Elissa Levitt and Brittny Bush) and woo a distraught Anne (Miranda Herbert) until she's putty in his hot hands, but he leaves a long line of corpses. He gels his hair, kohls his eyes and reddens his lips, but don't be fooled by the vanity — he'll stab you with his eyebrow pencil. Abetted by director Amy Hopper, Judge gives a full-bodied performance — it's chilling, precise and cuts to the bone.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover