(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/29/2020 Photo: Brendan Edward Kennedy, center, in the title role of “Henry V” at Brave Spirits Theater in Virginia.Credit…Claire Kimball; via Pam Green.)
Brave Spirits Theater expected to mount an ambitious cycle of eight history plays. Instead it became yet another victim of the pandemic.
I’ve written several versions of this story. First it was supposed to be an account of a small theater company’s ambitious stage project, then a story about that interrupted project and the company’s plan to regroup because of the pandemic. Now it’s an elegy for a small theater that the coronavirus shut down.
On a bright but chilly Saturday afternoon in February, I hopped on a train to Alexandria, Va., just outside of Washington. I was visiting Brave Spirits Theater, which was presenting the first part of a bold endeavor: staging eight of Shakespeare’s history plays (the two tetralogies, from “Richard II” to “Richard III”) in repertory, over the course of 18 months, culminating in a marathon performance of all eight works.
I was there to see the first two plays in the series, beginning with a matinee performance of “Richard II.” On the car from the train station, I peeked at the quiet suburbs of Alexandria — brick houses with wraparound porches, American flags by the door — until I arrived at the theater, which channeled the small-town whimsy of a playhouse in a storybook. The space, a converted church building, had pale yellow columns out front and bright turquoise trim around the windows, with red accents throughout.
Charlene V. Smith, who co-founded Brave Spirits in 2011, told me that the idea for the project occurred to her in 2008, when she saw the Royal Shakespeare Company in London do a marathon performance of the histories. Brave Spirits was claiming to be making history by being the “first professional American theater company to mount full productions of Shakespeare’s two history plays tetralogies and perform them in repertory.”
A few feet away from where we were sitting, in one corner of the lobby, was a chalkboard. Four calendar months were neatly drawn in perfectly symmetrical boxes — January, February, March, April — with a color-coded schedule of performances of the first tetralogy, which the company named “The King’s Shadow”: Richard in bright red, the first Henry in clover green, the second Henry in yellow and the last Henry in a crisp, royal purple.
In a humble but well-done production, Brave Spirits had Richard II crowned and killed, and his successor, Henry Bolingbroke, a.k.a. Henry IV, was named the new king. After the audience left, the cast milled around the space, chatting in the kitchen, which doubled as the box office. “Is your bag of heads upstairs?” I heard someone call out from the hall. A few wore shirts that were being sold by the company, black tees with gray block lettering that read “Richard & Henry & Henry & Henry & Richard.” (Ever the Shakespeare nerd, I bought one.)
That evening I saw “Henry IV, Part I,” and every seat was filled. Older couples and families and a couple of teens gabbed and waved at one another; everyone was a local. I left on the train the next morning, still buzzed with the energy in that tiny converted church.
I wrote the article, but before it was published the pandemic shut down the performing arts across the nation, and the story of Brave Spirits changed. Like many other theaters, it was forced to cut short the histories project, which DC Metro Theater Arts predicted would be “one of the must-sees of the 2021 season.” April 19-20 was supposed to be a big weekend for the company, when all of the plays in the first tetralogy would be staged in repertory, ending in the capstone of the first half, “Henry V.”