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Celebrating the Bard: Joint Creighton, UNO, Nebraska Shakespeare production is first of its kind

A War of RosesSince the first performance of Shakespeare’s historical Henry VI plays, the world has seen its share of internecine strife, political scheming, violent upheaval and subjugation — blood and intrigue enough to stop even the Bard’s fervid pen.

Four centuries after Shakespeare documented the Wars of the Roses, we’re still in the thick of the miasma, and a new season of partisan spectacle has made the three Henry VI plays, full of civil unrest, demagoguery and populist upheaval more prescient than ever.

In November, as part of the 30th anniversary of the founding of Nebraska Shakespeare, the theater departments at Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha are taking Shakespeare’s trilogy and turning it into a two-part series, A War of Roses, performed at both campuses by student actors and professional actors who are alumni of each school.

“It’s totally unique in college theater in that we don’t think two universities and another institution (Nebraska Shakespeare) have collaborated on doing two plays in repertory before,” said Amy Lane, Ph.D., assistant professor of theater in Creighton’s Department of Fine and Performing Arts. “The Henry VI plays are so apropos in this particular moment. And the way we’ve chosen to perform them is going to have a striking effect.”

Condensing the three plays into two — titled Foreign Flames and A Fire Within, adapted by Nebraska Shakespeare’s artistic director, Vincent Carlson-Brown — for A War of Roses, the performance also comprises parts of the history immediately surrounding the action of Henry VI, touching the rousing rhetoric of Henry V’s “Band of Brothers” speech at Agincourt and carrying through to the foretelling, benighted moments of Richard III’s “winter of our discontent.”

The fire theme in both titles has been incorporated into set and costume design in beguiling ways.

At Creighton, theater professor and set designer Bill Van Deest has composed a battle-torn stage, rife with the kinds of images that have been thickly spread across American television screens since 9/11.

Van Deest said the imagery will also call to mind war-ravaged scenes in conflicts from World War II to the ongoing civil war in Syria. Van Deest has also employed the look of a thick, rambling rose bush to deck the proscenium and serve as a nod to the belligerents in the play’s action: the white-rosed House of York and the red-rosed Lancasters.

The set at UNO, designed by theater faculty member Robbie Jones, is evocative of the fire-hollowed shell of M’s Pub, the treasured Old Market restaurant gutted by a blaze in January.

“These are stark, empty places that used to be alive but are now just gone,” Lane said. “It’s a burnt-out world, a scorched earth. But Bill has also brought in this overgrown briar bush, this thick tangle of growth that goes all around the proscenium and reminds you that this is politics and it’s two factions that cannot find common ground and have instead bound themselves to one another in a violent struggle.”

Costumes, designed by another faculty member, Lindsay Pape, are in the style of Shakespearean garb, but have been ever so slightly toasted at the fringes.

“They look like they’ve been through a little bit of the fire,” Lane said. “It’s very much 15th-century England with just a little bit of the burnt to it. Lindsay has done an amazing job with the look of everyone.”

Preparing for the performances, cast members took part in what Lane and her co-collaborators, Carlson-Brown and D. Scott Glasser, coordinator and professor of UNO’s theater program, called a “Shakespeare boot camp.”

The week-long boot camp included sessions on stage combat and working with Shakespearean text. While most of the 40 student actors cast have some familiarity with Shakespeare, Lane said the Henry VI plays are challenging in their scope — being a historical recounting of both England’s medieval excursions in France and the subsequent infighting among the claimants to the English throne — as well as in language and performance.

It’s also the first Shakespeare Creighton has undertaken since 2013.

“This will likely be entirely different from what you learned about Shakespeare in high school,” Lane said. “A lot of the students have probably not held a sword — we hope — and might be unfamiliar with fight choreography and fencing stances, so we’re starting from scratch in those areas. But there’s also a very rich, muscular tone in the text of these plays that we’d like the actors to get some extra confidence with.”

The boot camp took place just prior to the onset of rehearsals, with Carlson-Brown working on stage combat and Moira Mangiameli coaching on the text.

“We’ll also throw in some history lessons there because these are historical plays and it can be tough, even for the professionals, to keep the story straight,” Lane said. “The collaboration between two different university theater departments and Nebraska Shakespeare will be a great opportunity for the students, though. It’s good to experience some difference as you progress in the theater.”

A War of Roses will begin with the first part, Foreign Flames, directed by Glasser at UNO’s Weber Fine Arts Building, staged Nov. 3 to 6, and Nov. 10, 12 and 13. The second part of the production, A Fire Within, directed by Lane, runs Nov. 11 to 13 and Nov. 17 to 20 on the Mainstage at the Lied Education Center for the Arts.

On both Nov. 12 and 13, patrons can experience the entire production in one day with a matinee performance of Foreign Flames at UNO and an evening production of A Fire Within at Creighton.

Creighton students in the productions include Hailee Domagalski, Torrey Schenewerk, Allexys Johnson, Alyssa Claussen, Peter Nicholson, Ben Gliedt, Esther Aruguete and Ben Adams. Creighton alumnus Nick Zadina is one of the actors playing the title role.

Tickets for A Fire Within, staged at the Lied Education Center for the Arts, can be purchased at the Creighton box office, by calling 402-280-1448 or visiting the online box office. Tickets can also be purchased on the Nebraska Shakespeare website.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.