BakerShake breaks with tradition, performing ‘Henry V’ for first time in 49 years

Hanszen junior Nonie Hilliard is playing King Henry V in the titular play for this year's BakerShake production. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Hanszen junior Nonie Hilliard is playing King Henry V in the titular play for this year’s BakerShake production. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

The normally quiet student library inside Baker College is centered around a massive mahogany table flanked by two enormous stone fireplaces. On a recent Saturday afternoon, one handsome fireplace was entirely covered by a long rack of World War I-era military costumes, some of which had also spilled onto the table. There they joined half-empty pizza boxes, unfinished sewing projects and piles of scripts for Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” Students darted in and out, grabbing slices of pizza between building the set inside Baker Commons and working on costumes. From the floor, a bulldog named Costello barked at a mannequin head on the table sporting a wig and maid’s bonnet.

“I think the disembodied head is freaking him out,” said Costello’s owner, Baker College junior and co-producer Molly Hurley. It was only two weeks until Baker College’s annual Shakespeare festival, BakerShake, which runs this year from March 29 to 31 and April 5 to 7. This will be the first time they’ve performed “Henry V,” said Hurley, and in nearly half a century of shows, it’s only the third time for BakerShake to produce one of Shakespeare’s histories.

“This play originally has about 40 characters in it,” Hurley said, surveying the scene in the library. “We’ve got a crazy amount of costumes.” Traditionally, however, there isn’t an equivalent number of Bakerites auditioning each year, which means big productions like “Henry V” require a few changes. Director Stephen M. Miranda reduced the running time to a manageable two hours, and most cast members will play multiple parts, complete with frenzied off-stage costume changes.

In a reversal from the Bard’s own traditions of the time, King Henry himself will be played by a woman: Hanszen College junior Nonie Hilliard. “Shakespeare doesn’t generally have a huge number of female characters, and so a question we pose to the director every year is, ‘How do you feel about gender-blind casting?’” Hurley said.

It’s also become common to cast non-Bakerites like Hilliard, who previously impressed Rice audiences as Cassius in another Shakespeare play, “Julius Caesar,” produced by the Visual and Dramatic Arts Department in 2016. “We’re turning the play on its head and we’ve got a bunch of girls who are playing male roles,” Hurley said. “We’re approaching our 50th year of performances, but that means we have to change a few of the minor parts of this tradition to make it workable with today’s age.”

Hurley is also excited to produce a historical play, as BakerShake has typically chosen Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies to feature in the past. (Romantic comedy “The Tempest” is the most popularly performed play, with four productions over the years.) “I really wanted to up BakerShake’s game this year, and one way to do that is doing something new,” Hurley said. “There’s a lot of untapped value and potential in histories. ‘Henry V’ is the show that made our director fall in love with Shakespeare.”

But she also knew such a play could potentially be a hard sell when soliciting both performers and audiences. “So we tell people it’s a coming-of-age story,” Hurley said. “In this play, Henry is now king. His father has died, he’s a very young king and he has a lot to prove. In his youth, he was a bit of a troublemaker, and so he has a reputation for that. Now that he’s king, he has to really prove himself to be someone worthy of respect, someone worthy of being a ruler. He’s up against a lot.”

Even set against the backdrop of war — in this case, the legendary Battle of Agincourt that pitted an outnumbered English army against the well-armed French on their own turf — it’s a familiar story for any young adult grappling with increased responsibility and expectations. The decision was made to stage “Henry V” in a slightly more modern setting, hence the World War I-era military uniforms rather than suits of armor, as a way of further expressing the play’s timeless sentiments. And then there’s the weaponry. “Setting it in the early part of the 20th century is always a smart choice for modernizing Shakespeare because you can still viably have a sword on stage,” Miranda said.

Hurley found an eager director in Miranda, who is returning to the position for the second year in a row. Miranda described the history as the exploration of universal human truths. “’Henry V’ is my favorite play by Shakespeare,” he said, “because it’s a play about the great equalizer — that desire to grab your own destiny, which is ubiquitous.”

Because it’s such a demanding role, the job of director typically goes to a member of the Houston community rather than a Baker College student. Currently the general manager of the local Landing Theatre Company, Miranda brings years of experience as a freelance director and producer with the Great River Shakespeare Festival.

On this Saturday afternoon, he and Hurley found their hands full with half-sewn costumes, a half-built set and the challenge of hanging a lighting rig from the 105-year-old ceiling of Baker Commons without damaging the wooden crossbeams. Their calm demeanors suggested that both thrived among the frenetic energy of it all. Miranda waxed philosophically as he and Hurley watched a Baker senior on a towering cherry picker tenderly affix wires to the oak paneling of the Elizabethan-style hall.

“The act of listening is dying. The art of language is dying,” Miranda said. “In Shakespeare’s time, people went to go hear a play; they didn’t go to see a play. Being able to continue on to the next generation this passion and excitement for words really keeping the legacy of Shakespeare alive with young people so that they can then do the same is something that’s really important to me. It’s been a real pleasure to work with these students, and to have them ask me back was really touching.”

For her part, Hurley knows she’ll return next year for her fourth and final BakerShake. “This is such a long-standing tradition; I can’t believe we’re technically Houston’s longest-running Shakespeare festival,” she said. And there are big plans underway for the 50th annual production even as the finishing touches are still being put on the 49th.

“There’s definitely talk of doing ‘Taming of the Shrew,’ which was our very first performance,” Hurley said. “We might bring it all the way back. But who knows?”

BakerShake performances of “Henry V” will be at 8 p.m. March 29-31 and April 5-7. All performances will be at Baker College inside the commons. Tickets are free for Baker students; $5 for all other students, Baker College staff or groups larger than 10 people; $8 for Rice faculty and staff; $10 for the public and $100 for Bard’s Couches (couches placed next to the stage).

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About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.