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Nonie Hilliard as King Henry in Henry V.

Molly Hurley, a third-year student at Rice University, knew the moment she became head producer for the 2018 BakerShake performance that she wanted to bring something different to the stage. The annual student-run event put on by Rice's Baker Residential College is probably Houston’s longest running Shakespeare festival—something Houston Shakespeare Festival may not like to acknowledge—and for the 49th iteration, Hurley helms a female-led Henry V.

“I wanted something really new, and I was pretty set from the beginning to do a historical play,” Hurley says. “I thought it would be a lot more interesting, and I figured that a lot of the alumni and associates might be more interested if it was a historical play, because it would be new for them, too. You don’t see people putting on Henry V nearly as often as Romeo and Juliet.”

One doesn’t need to be a Shakespeare enthusiast to know women weren’t allowed on stage in the Elizabethan era or that young men played the female roles. This year, BakerShake reverses that practice by having actresses play traditionally male roles. “Shakespeare wrote a lot of amazing plays as well as parts in there for men,” says third year Nonie Hilliard, who plays King Henry’s character. “He also wrote some amazing female roles, but they are few and far between, and it's extremely competitive to get those. It's amazing to have the opportunity to do a part I wouldn’t otherwise get.”

Although the production is cross-casting, they are not re-writing the play to make the characters female. Hilliard as Henry will still be called “King” with all the correct male pronouns original to the play. She notes that it's almost ambiguous because she presents herself as a woman in a female-tailored suit with her hair subtly down, yet she will still be referred to as male.

Hurley, who also played a traditionally male role in BakerShake's 2015 Measure for Measure production, says the contradictions are intentional: “We’re really throwing gender out the window, because it really just doesn’t matter."

While Henry V is not as popular as Hamlet or Macbeth, there are some lessons to learn from the King of England’s coming-of-age story leading up to the Battle of Agincourt. This production of Henry V takes place during the World War I era rather than the 15th century (a boon for Downton Abbey fans).

Director Stephen Miranda—who is also the general manager of the Landing Theatre Company—said in an email that it's important for audiences to recognize that this is a “history play” not a “history lesson.” The play follows Henry’s growth into man alongside fictional and non-fictional characters. “Henry endeavors to be one with his men,” Miranda says. “He strives to understand the barriers that divide the classes and find ways to build bridges between them.”  

The moment one hears Henry’s exhilarating war cry, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” as he leads his outnumbered army toward the French enemy—and wins—they will surely be hooked. “Henry comes out triumphant and he earns the respect of his country and beats an uphill battle,” Hurley says. “It’s a huge success story and I think that is a really great sentiment that is very kind of American too. We always like to root for the underdog here.”

Thru April 7. Tickets from $5. Rice University's Baker College, 6320 Main St. 346-217-8026. More info and tickets at baker.rice.edu.

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