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Henry VI
Parts 1 and 2

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - August 25, 2018

Paul Juhn and Michelangelo Hyeon
Photo by William P. Steele

Henry VI doesn't get a lot of stagings, and the National Asian American Theatre Company's ambitious rendering of Shakespeare's epic tragedy (Christopher Marlowe is also heavily rumored to have had a hand in it, as is Thomas Nashe) provides many hints as to why. Not that NAATCO doesn't do a splendid job with this vivid history of the Wars of the Roses, and the treachery and savagery suffered by England and France through most of the 15th century. There's just so damn much of it.

It is, in fact, written in three parts, which director Stephen Brown-Fried has sensibly "adapted" (did he actually rewrite, or just boil down?) into two evenings. Part 1, here labeled "Foreign Wars," depicts the coronation of Henry (Jon Norman Schneider), his betrothal to the scheming Margaret of Anjou (Mahira Kakkar), France's several victories over the British and the role of Joan of Arc (Kim Wong) in securing them, and the growing rivalry, illustrated by the wearing of red or white roses, engulfing Humphrey of Lancaster, the Duke of Gloucester (Mia Katigbak, a NAATCO co-founder), and Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York (Rajesh Bose). In Part 2, "Civil Strife," York strives to wrestle the throne from Henry, and the struggle continues into the next generation, with Henry's son Prince Edward (Michelangelo Hyeon) pitted against York's son, another Edward, the Earl of March (David Shih) and his bellicose bastard brothers. Along the way, a peasant gets to utter Shakespeare's (or Marlowe's or Nashe's) immortal line, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Oh, and just about everybody dies in battle.

Got that? Admittedly, it's a lot to keep track of — the original Part 2 alone had over 50 speaking parts, the most of any Shakespeare play, and I'm leaving out any number of subplots in the summary above — and much of the first hour or two at NAATCO is spent wondering, Who's he? Who's she? Why are they so angry at each other? This, compounded by the flowery Elizabethan iambic pentameter and NAATCO's frequently gender-blind casting, leaves a lot for us to figure out. Once you've puzzled out the dramatis personae, it's relatively easy to follow, and the emotions rattling across NAATCO's ample stage are strong and affecting. Brown-Fried even manages to draw out a surprising amount of humor amid all the bloodletting, notably in Margaret's rapid transition from a seemingly shy, docile virgin into a ruthless power-behind-the-power bitch, and in her sexual sparring with the Earl of Suffolk (a wily, randy Paul Juhn).

There are 16 actors (it feels like twice that), double- and triple- and quadruple-cast, and their skill at line memorization alone is awe-inspiring. That they can also bring subtle shadings to these broadly drawn characters is a tribute to them and to Brown-Fried, whose direction goes well beyond traffic management, though there's a lot of that. His fight choreography isn't the best (he's assisted by "movement directors" Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin), and it frequently lapses pointlessly into slo-mo, but he has a way with actors. Besides Juhn's spot-on Suffolk, I'm especially impressed with Katigbak's dignified, wronged Gloucester, Bose's thundering York, Wong's deeply felt Joan, and Kakkar's amoral, calculating Margaret. Schneider's Henry feels comparatively passive, a well-spoken dolt, but that's the part, and he navigates the many soliloquies expertly.

Kimie Nishikawa's set is largely a red floor (bloodshed?) covered in shifting gray paper scraps (the ashen aftermath of battle?) and two staircases on wheels, rolled frequently around to represent the throne, battlefield boundaries, and whatever else is necessary. Reza Behjat's lighting is expressive and often just lovely, notably when shining fresh morning sun on Joan. And Nicole Slaven's accent-on-black costumes are rather odd, an irrational mélange of period and contemporary, sometimes within the same getup. But they do effectively point up class differences, a valuable trait when so much of the action is about how easily swayable the illiterate commoners are. Toby Algya's sound design consists of loud cinematic music and louder battle effects, which sometimes drown out the unmiked actors, but thank heaven they're unmiked.

That all these warring Brits and Frenchmen are enacted by an Asian-American cast feels neither here nor there, except perhaps to underline the universal themes of conquest and petty jealousies that escalate into political disaster. NAATCO's press release states that the company was drawn to Henry VI as "a cautionary fable on the fragility of empire, and on the horrors that human beings are capable of enacting." Fair enough, but at this particular moment in history, other Shakespearean themes might resonate even more strongly — how about the family dynamics of King Lear, or the deluded leadership of Richard III? Still, this Henry affords an opportunity to experience rarely performed Shakespeare in two easily digestible gulps, and very stylishly, too. Do be advised, though: a) It's six hours out of your life, b) you'd do well to first read the Wikipedia entries on all three plays, as well as NAATCO's projected synopsis in the lobby, and c) the language is challenging, and not a little verbose. Excellent as most of it is, this Henry VI summoned up a long-ago memory for me, a quip made by a schoolmate in ninth- or tenth-grade English, after we'd trudged through Hamlet. Shakespeare, he declared, "was basically a gifted hack."

Henry VI
Through September 8
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theaters, 502 West 53rd Street at Tenth Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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