Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Shakespeare's Henry VI Trilogy Makes For Robust Entertainment
Also see Bob's review of Tartuffe
The evening begins with the funeral of Henry V, who has died only seven years after the English victory at the battle of Agincourt. and the ascension to the English throne of nine-year-old Henry VI. The Duke of Gloucester has been installed as protector and advisor to the young king. The envious Bishop of Winchester seeks to undermine Gloucester in order to gain control over the child king and exercise control over England. The French are resurgent and the English are in desperate need of strong, united leadership, but repeatedly over the next fifty years, Henry VI will remain weak and all too easily betrayed and manipulated by the Lords of the royal houses of England as form shifting alliances, and they variously attempt to compete for succession to his throne and try to unseat him. Shortly, enmity spins over as Richard Plantagenet of the House of York (the white rose) and the Earl of Somerset of the House of Lancaster (the red rose). The traitorous Earl of Suffolk convinces Henry VI to break his engagement to marry Margaret of Anjou whom he has already seduced with the reasonable expectation that she will rule the weak Henry, and that he himself will in turn rule her. All of the this and much more comprise Henry VI, Part 1. Betrayals, battles. executions, and brother viciously turning against brother continue to be the fodder throughout all of the Henry VI plays.
Joan of Arc, a major presence in Part 1, only puts in a brief cameo in this production. And this seems an appropriate choice as director/ adapter Brian B. Crowe concentrates on the rivalries and relationships among the English royal houses. The events of English history cascade upon us at a breakneck pace with remarkable clarity. And although the pace causes events which unfolded over an extended period to sometimes appear to be juxtaposed together, neither drama, emotional involvement, action nor clarity is ever sacrificed. Crowe stages battle sequences most effectively in slow and even stop motion as a backdrop to spoken dialogue.
Most of the 24-member cast play multiple (even multiple major) roles with as many as four to five speaking roles for some. While, on occasion this proves a slight distraction, in no way does it put a damper on this lively and engrossing production. The entire ensemble performs at a high level. Ryan Farley brings a contemporary mien to the adult Henry. Easily manipulated and more interested in pleasant pursuits than the obligations of his position, this Henry becomes appropriately whiny when he realizes that he is being betrayed, and fairness and the best interests of the crown are not the goal of those advising him.
John Hickok plays Gloucester with a straightforward and winning honesty. William Metzo is villainous, but never over the top so, as Winchester. Rufus Collins projects the ambiguities in the behavior of York (Plantagenet). Scott Whitehurst powerfully projects the evil and discontent of rebel leader Jack Cade, as a psychologically deformed common man's Richard III. Angela Pierce is a rapacious and disloyal, attractive-on-the-surface Margaret of Anjou. Joe Discher (Somerset), Fletcher McTaggart (Suffolk) and (again) Scott Whitehurst (Warwick) each make notable contributions as contending lords.
The all black unit set by Michael Schweikardt reflects the dark time this was for England. Its spiral staircase, a bridge-like high platform, and a semi-circular stage level one provide a well placed variety of playing areas. The only color provided is a blue curtain for a French palace.
In these plays, Shakespeare posits that Henry VI's overly generous and fawning behavior toward French royalty and his inability to ride herd on his lords as they seek power for themselves and fail to fulfill their obligation to provide military support to the crown are the cause of repeated and indecisive wars and repeated, spiraling betrayals, social decay and death. Implicit in Henry VI: Blood and Roses is a strong message with clear implications for today's dangerous world.
Henry VI: Blood and Roses is so involving and entertaining that it whets the appetite to see full length productions of each of the three plays from which it has been adapted, along with one of Richard III Is that too much to hope for?
The final line of this production is the opening line from Richard III:
Now is the winter of our discontent
As fall begins to take hold in New Jersey, it is a pleasure to contemplate the long and joyous Shakespearean summer of great contentment which the Shakespeare Theatre has brought to us.
Henry VI: Blood and Roses continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m.) through November 11, 2007 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600 online www.shakespeareNJ.org.
Henry VI: Blood and Roses from William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Parts I, II, III; adapted and directed by Brian B. Crowe
Talbot, Mariner, Young Clifford........................................Clark Carmichael*