As if King Henry V, of William Shakespeare’s historical plays and real, actual history, wasn’t a complicated enough figure, Northern Arizona University’s Crooked Figure Theatre added another layer of complexity: She’s a woman.
Grace Novak plays the titular king in the group’s production of “Henry V,” performed over two weekends at Sedona’s El Portal Hotel. And while a couple minor characters are also genderswapped, this woman king is still surrounded by men and all too aware of it.
“She’s constantly trying to cover it, and make up for it, and compensate for it,” said Novak, a recent NAU graduate.
And because of that, “she does some really rash things.”
While gender-swapping Shakespeare characters isn’t exactly a revolutionary take on his work anymore, with popular productions of Macbeth, Hamlet and many others featuring female protagonists, Henry V director Christine Gutierrez-Dennehy said she hasn’t seen many, if any, productions where Henry is played both by and as a woman.
The distinction there is that, when past productions of Henry V have cast a woman to play Henry, the king’s pronoun remained he and the presence on the stage wasn’t recognized as a woman’s.
That’s not the case with Crooked Figure’s Henry V: Novak has a distinctly feminine energy and pronouns to go along with it.
Though She Be but Little
With a physicality that mirrors her insecurity as king, Novak’s is not the typical large, attention-demanding presence you expect of a ruler. She is always the smallest figure in a given scene: Her counterparts, whether they’re the king’s allies and family, her soldiers or her French antagonists, all stand several inches taller than her.
“I thought, if my whole idea is that Henry has to work to prove herself, then what if we put a body in that role that you don’t look at and say, ‘Oh, clearly that’s a king?’” Gutierrez-Dennehy said. “A lot of the work we did was very organic, very much about, ‘How do we get over these preconceptions we had?’”
Throughout the play, Novak’s Henry uses her environment to make herself bigger, leaping onto raised stones to, if not look down on, at least be eye-to-eye with her men. She plants her feet wide, places hands on hips with her elbows out, and waves her long sword in her efforts to take up space and cement her presence.
Henry’s height is the least of her difficulties. With the exception of pronouns, the script remained largely unchanged to accommodate the gender swap, and some lines take on new meaning when the king is a woman.
As tensions between England and France rise in the beginning of the play, King Henry sends an emissary to France to give them one last warning to relinquish territories she’s claimed as England’s. During this meeting, the king of France refers to Henry as “our brother England.” The epithet itself is innocuous enough, but it takes on layered intention in the context of a woman king.
“It’s a challenge: ‘I’m not going to recognize that you’re a woman because [the king] shouldn’t be a woman.’ That’s basically what the king of France is saying,” Novak said.
In other instances, the script works to Henry’s advantage. During a scene toward the end of the play where the king woos Princess Katharine of France, after their defeat, Katharine mutters in French that the tongues of men are full of deceits.
When Henry repeats the phrase in English, voice laced with laughter and irony, her meaning is clear: The tongues of men may be full of deceits, but this Henry is no man.
She Is Fierce
While interpretations of Henry vary, from portraying him as an unabashed, unrepentant war criminal to a young king dedicated to the cause he believes in, Crooked Figure finds a sympathetic figure in Novak’s Henry, who is unsure of herself and trying to prove she’s worthy of her title.
“What that is, is it’s a female ruler who’s saying, ‘OK, a lot of people don’t think I should have this job, a lot of people don’t think I can do this job, but I’m going to prove myself as a woman and as a leader,’” Gutierrez-Dennehy said.
She guided Novak to take inspiration from Queen Elizabeth I, England’s monarch when Shakespeare wrote the play.
“She’s one of the strongest queens, I feel, in history,” Novak said. “Not only that, she wasn’t a stereotypical queen. She didn’t have a husband; she didn’t have children. But you can’t call her a barren queen when all of these subjects and the country itself are her children and her kinsmen.”
In one of the script’s few additions, Gutierrez-Dennehy adjusted a line from one of Queen Elizabeth’s speeches defending her decision to not marry or have children.
“Every one of you, for as many as are Englishmen and Frenchmen, too, are children and kinsmen to me, of whom if God deprived me not, which God forbid, I cannot be accounted barren,” Novak’s Henry says, addressing the courts of England and France in the play’s closing scene.
Setting the Stage
Novak’s Henry isn’t the only unorthodoxy in this production. Rather than perform in a more traditional setting — like, say, in a theater or on a stage — Crooked Figure brought its performance to a small, greenery-drenched inn tucked away by Tlaquepaque.
At the play’s opening night Friday, Aug. 11, guests packed out the small hotel lobby for the opening scenes before being led outside to perch on an array of patio furniture, decorative stones and along the courtyard’s inner walls.
Birds and bugs and a light breeze filled the air with ambient sound, while the smell of smoke from a crackling fire added another layer of immersion.
“It makes for a really interesting audience experience, because what I like to say is there’s no perfect seat, so you have to move at least once,” Gutierrez-Dennehy said. “The play goes on this journey from England to France, so what we’re doing is taking people on a journey.”
An offshoot of Northern Arizona University’s theater department, Crooked Figure’s actors are all recent graduates or students at NAU, several with family living in Sedona and the Verde Valley who came out to support them.
GutierrezDennehy is a lecturer in the college’s theater department.
“We’re new, we’re plucky, we’re excited,” GutierrezDennehy said.
Catch the next performances of Crooked Figure Theatre’s Henry V Friday and Saturday, Aug. 18 and 19, at 6 p.m. at El Portal Hotel in Sedona. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and the performance is free.