A swift-moving, though at times bewildering, collection of scenes from Shakespeare's histories Witchcraft in their Lips closets you with a dozen women reveling in scenes mined from Shakespeare's eight history plays. Stephanie Donowho and Nell McKeown, not featured in that dozen, collected and arranged these excerpts in an effort to evaluate Shakespeare's female characters depicted in plots of vigorous masculine struggle.
While confirming that many of the plays, especially the histories, depict women of character and action who are not reduced to simple objects of amorous attention, the author-directors became absorbed in the histories' rich complexities of character and plot. Your program advises you of the sequence of scenes presented and provides a single-page cheat sheet with the plot of all eight works. But what you'll see is not chronological in terms of the plots. At times you'll witness two or even three scenes interrupting one another in stop-action because they were chosen to illustrate a common theme or dilemma; e.g., Women Wooed by Kings, Women in Marriage, and Women in Marriage.
Emphatic movement mirrors the clash of personalities. Intimate scenes alternate with the choreographed rush of crowds or armies. With a dozen articulate women to stage scenes in the Sinclair Suite at the Texas Union (shown in these rehearsal snaps), they easily fill it up with sound and fury to signify a great deal.
They know exactly what they're doing, to the syllable, the turn of the wrist, the grimace and the courting kiss, of which there are plenty. As an audience member, you are likely to be disoriented much of the time. The familiar exchanges of Henry V, Richard III and Henry IV, Part 2 resemble lifeboats bobbing up suddenly on a tossing sea of language and incident. Who 'mongst us is really familiar with Henry VI, the trio of plays that feature Joan of Arc? Or with the character Margaret of Anjou, later the Queen of England, who battled and killed the Duke of York? Are you confident you can distinguish among the host of secondary characters, both lords and ladies?
There's bad business afoot much of the time, wickedness and seduction, and deadly struggles for power — and these women, both characters and actors, embrace it all. Leanna Holmquist as the duplicitous, murdering Richard III is as deadly as an adder, performing a particularly entertaining transformation considering that only a month ago she was playing Richard's denouncer Queen Margaret in the Baron's Men's production of that play. Likewise, Jennifer Rose Davis, artist, musician, and theatre director, becomes a resolute, sword-swinging, and entirely intimidating Henry V. With a cast of this number and this level of verbal mastery, one is seduced by the language and transfixed by the earnest joy of the actors. I'd seen five of the twelve cast members elsewhere on Austin stages, a fact that left me with an additional seven faces of fascination. For there's not a weak link anywhere in this circle.
Witchcraft in their Lips is an over-the-top celebration by female Shakespeare geeks. They could construct similar evenings for Shakespeare's tragedies and for comedies, undertakings that would tax their audiences somewhat less. But these few, this band of sisters labeling themselves Untamed Shakespeare, aren't really courting audiences. They've taken deep draughts of the pure source material, and they're celebrating Shakespeare with the fervor the Bacchae celebrated Dionysus.
BONUS MATERIAL: Click to view the program for Untamed Shakespeare's Witchcraft in their Lips (PDF)