By Kimberly Rau
What does it take to survive? Everything, according to Queen Margaret of Anjou, a woman Shakespeare canonized as the “she-wolf of France,” ready to take on anyone and anything that stood in her way. But this former royal didn’t’ start out a cut-throat force of nature, and this original work by Whitney White, a Brown/Trinty Rep acting grad, sets out to examine Margaret’s unique character.
Based on various works by William Shakespeare, By the Queen is a fiercely feminine self-retrospective, where modern-day women portray Queen Margaret throughout her life. If you could have a conversation with your former selves, what would you say? And what would each version of you think of your life’s path and decisions?
Imagine being able to reflect with multiple self-perspectives all at once—like a multi-generational family gathering of one. Maybe you wouldn’t want to at all, but if you did, the possibilities could be endless, the potential for greater understanding (and heartbreak) almost infinite. Would you be proud of all the choices you made, or defend them because they were what you needed to do to survive? It’s all about perspective.
White’s play, directed by Brian McEleney, is immersive, and includes some (optional) on-stage seating, as well as a bit of audience participation. This has the effect of making you feel as though you’ve been invited to the party, rather than being relegated to mere spectator. At the start, Margaret 3 comes out on stage and addresses the audience directly, demolishing the fourth wall. She welcomes Margaret 2 and Margaret 1, and her story unfolds. The atmosphere is elegant; the table, inviting; the dialogue, witty and sharp. And every memory comes back to the same theme: this, whatever it is, is what it took to survive. This is how you do it. This is how you live.
Of course, a good story is nothing without good actors to bring it to life, and as usual, Trinity doesn’t disappoint. Fiona Marie Maguire plays the starry-eyed Margaret 1, a teenager with strong opinions about choice, consent and what’s fair. At first scorning the setup that allowed Margaret to eventually marry King Henry VI, this ingénue’s view quickly begins to change once she realizes how limited her options truly are. Maguire is a bright, enchanting actor who does a marvelous job with young Margaret’s coming of age.
Margaret 2 (Rachel Christopher) is decisive and powerful. She’s learned that if she wants respect, she’ll have to do whatever it takes, even if that means crushing any who oppose her. And, as she is wont to point out, it’s nothing a man wouldn’t be expected, or even encouraged, to do. Christopher is a captivating force from the moment she takes the stage, a perfect Margaret at the height of her power.
Margaret 3 (Paula Plum) caries herself in a carefully collected manner—it’s clear this is a woman who has seen a lot. She had everything she desired or cared about ripped from her, but she is not weak, she is righteously vengeful. Plum, making her Trinity debut, is no stranger to Shakespeare, and her expertise is perfectly honed for this magnificent role.
Though this is clearly the queens’ show, the entire cast gives outstanding performances. Jeff Church as Richard III (and also the Shakespeare dramaturg, quick to get the women back on track when their storytelling veers from fact into fancy), Taavon Gamble as Suffolk, Mauro Hantman as Gloucester, Matthew Russell as Henry VI and JaQuan Malik Jones as Warwick all give notably great performances.
There’s just one small thing. While we’re busy dismantling the stereotypes surrounding how a woman “should” act, speak, delegate, etc., can we please retire the “women and wine” cliché? Give them scotch, neat. Beer, straight from the bottle. Better yet, let’s put to bed the entire idea that the only way women can feel free to speak their minds is when they’re inebriated. Let Margaret stand in all her ferocity without leaning on the trope that we need libations to liberate ourselves. Nevertheless, this progressive play is well worth your time and will definitely leave you talking for days afterwards.
“By the Queen” runs through Feb. 12 at Trinity Rep, 201 Washington St., Providence. Tickets may be obtained at the box office, online at trinityrep.com or by calling 401.351.4242. Masks are required at all times while inside the building.