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Henry VI, Parts 1–3

Finishing a Marathon with a Good Start

Hamlet Isn't Dead, WOW Cafe Theatre, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, September 20, 2014, Second row center in black box theater
Directed by Robin Rightmyer

Children can bring their parents so much pleasure—especially when they become professionals with special talents. Lawyers can give parents free legal advice, airline employees can get their parents travel discounts, bankers can help their parents with investments and estate planning. And actors, well, they can get themselves cast in William Shakespeare's three parts of Henry VI, providing a golden opportunity for their parents to see these rarely produced places. And if your offspring actor happens to make a pretty good York, that's bonus.

Reignier in denim shirt and blue jeans, Dauphin wearing glasses with leather jacket, collar upturned, over white polo shirt, and ALencon in yellow oxord shirt and beret, all with one arm across their bellies and the other arm pointing up
The French court, from left, Regnier (Ewa Wojcik), Dauphin (Nick Bosanko), and Alençon (Kevin Percival), kick off the action in the Hamlet Isn't Dead production of William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One at the WOW Cafe Theatre. Photo courtesy of Hamlet Isn't Dead.

Shakespeare's first history tetralogy is too seldom done (except for part four, Richard III), and if I could get on any Shakespeare soapbox, it would be to plead with more theaters to perform these plays—individually, not condensed into one or two parts. They are much more than mere curiosities, more even than examples of a nascent playwright on his way to genius. In Part Two, that genius is already evident, and it's flourishing with the third part, a play that feeds the follow-up, Richard III, with not only a backstory but also the psychological basis for Richard's pathology, the political basis for Elizabeth's actions, and the real reason Margaret shows up (because she's kick-ass in the Henry VI series and one of the greatest female characters in the whole canon; Shakespeare, and presumably his audience, couldn't get enough of her). Part One, meanwhile, most resembles children playing war on the playground (which is how the BBC/Time-Life series staged it), and if done with that reckless abandon is fun theater.

The fledgling New York City theater company Hamlet Isn't Dead staged all three plays because it is committed to mounting the entire Shakespeare canon in chronological order (the company began with The Two Gentlemen of Verona in the summer of 2013 and followed with The Taming of the Shrew last Christmas). Director Robin Rightmyer, who is executive director of Hamlet Isn't Dead, did some serious trimming of each Henry VI installment—some might argue too much trimming, lopping off some good meat along with the fat—but he still presented them as three individual plays with a talented company of actors at WOW Cafe Theatre's black box space (seating about 50). On two Saturdays, including the last day of the run when we finally made it up to New York to see them, the company presented all three plays in one marathon session, with hour-plus breaks between each play. As this essentially was one continuous day of theater, I'm combining the three into one review, but that should not be taken as an endorsement of turning the series into one play.

Henry VI, Part One

A majority of scholars believe that Shakespeare wrote this in collaboration with one or more other playwrights as a prequel in the wake of the huge successes of the two War of the Roses plays (Parts Two and Three). I hold to the minority view that this came first, not for any scholarly reasons but from a writer's gut feeling that Part Two reads more like a sequel than Part One reads like a prequel. Whether a training ground for Shakespeare or a thrown-together origin story for the characters of York and Margaret, Part One is in-your-face sloppy fun. Covering the rise and fall of Joan of Arc, the glorious feats of battle by England's Sir John Talbot, and the first years of the title character's reign, the play has as its purpose mostly to exalt British combat heroics, plant the seeds—ironically, in a garden scene—for the War of the Roses, and make fun of the French. The text itself gives Nick Bosanko, Ewa Wojcik, and Kevin Percival license to present pinky-extended, nose-up-pointed, snob-accented portrayals of, respectively, the Dauphin, Regnier, and Alençon.

In cutting and conflating this play down to a 1:45 running time, Rightmyer turns the production's focus on the fomenting of the War of the Roses. The back-and-forth combat between the French and English armies is scaled back, Talbot (Bradley Sumner) gets short shrift, and all we see of Joan (played by Jessica Cermak with a biker chick vibe in this modern dress staging) is her introduction to the Dauphin, her first victory at Orléans, and her capture by Richard Plantagenet (the Duke of York, played by Jonathan Minton) in one helluva stage fight. Her scene conjuring devils is gone. Also gone, totally, are the scenes back in England of the squabbling between Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, a decision that will adversely impact Part Two's presentation to come.

What's kept, however, is significant to Part Two and beyond: the sharply acted garden scene in which Richard Plantagenet (wearing a white belt and tennis shoes) and Somerset (Logan Keeler, wearing a red necktie) pluck their white and red roses, respectively, and are seconded by Warwick (Percival) and Suffolk (Lady Suffolk here, played by Sara Group); the Parliament scene in which Plantagenet is made Duke of York; and the combat between the servants of Suffolk and York. Wojcik and Sophia Blum play the two servants as Guidettes hurling insults after bumping into each other on the nightclub dance floor (seated in the audience, they begin their feuding during the intermission). In these scenes and mostly throughout, the modern dress fits the storytelling, and turning Suffolk into a lesbian lady makes no impact on the play pro or con; however, the fight scenes, in which the players wield knives instead of swords, resemble Sharks and Jets in a rumble from another Shakespeare adaptation.

Rightmyer's most effective staging decision is spatially juxtaposing the scenes of Talbot's last battle with the scenes of Lucy (Mary DeCarlo) appealing to both Somerset and York, separately, to send supplies and reinforcements to the English general. York, then governor of France, blames Somerset for not supplying him with the forces to relieve Talbot while Somerset complains that York was too rash in mounting Talbot's expedition in the first place. Having these three scenes play out in separate areas of the stage, but with both York and Somerset remaining on stage as Talbot is killed, provides a visual metaphor of how the two barons' rivalry directly leads to the English hero's death. Obvious dysfunction of a government divided gives way to out-and-out civil war in the next chapter.

Henry VI, Part Two

It's not what's cut that mars so much in this two-hour middle section as what's missing: Suffolk's head. One of the most bizarre scenes in the entire Shakespearean canon is Queen Margaret mourning over the severed head of her lover, Suffolk, right there in the middle of the court. "I fear me, love, if that I had been dead, thou wouldst not have mourned so much for me," Henry VI (Morgan Hooper) tells her. But instead of a head, Suffolk is represented as a tiny picture in a locket around Margaret's neck. That doesn't have quite the visual impact of Shakespeare's stage direction.

Another great theatrical moment that goes down with a whimper is the agonizing death that Cardinal Beaufort (Travis Johnson) suffers. "So bad a death argues a monstrous life," says Warwick, but because so much of Beaufort's political ambition and manipulations have been cut, his terror-filled death lacks contextual relevance. The opposite is true of the Duke of Gloucester's death; the scenes of his good and loyal government have largely been excised, so he becomes just another pawn in the manipulations of York and Suffolk.

Also inexplicably missing is the Jack Cade rebellion featuring the third-most-famous line in all of the canon: "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Aside from being uproariously funny, Cade and his rebellion are germane to the plot, the means by which York provides a feint in order to build his power while in Ireland and then comes back to England to supposedly quell the rebellion he secretly instigated. For those who don't know the play, this cut may not be noticeable, but as with Margaret carrying Suffolk's head and Beaufort's "pangs of death" that "do make him grin," the audience misses out on such singular scenes as Cade's rampages that make this play so wonderfully theatrical.

York's rise to power otherwise is presented nearly in full, and Minton gives us a Richard Plantagenet who is certainly ambitious for power but ties his ambition in a tight knot to the nation's real need for a king who can lead effectively—his York is both rebel and stout patriot. This York, however, is also an impatient man, taking advantage of incompetence among his rivals rather than scheming his way to the throne. Ever at his side is Percival's Warwick, and the two actors make an engaging tandem on the stage as much as the two characters make a powerful tandem in the play. Minton's Plantagenet first bursts onto the scene with his powerful aura in the garden scene in Part One, and he will have the bloody napkin scene to come in Part Three, but he dominates Part Two.

Blum's Queen Margaret, meanwhile, is still feeling her way through the dysfunctional politics of the English court. Impoverished daughter of a king in title only, she's tentative upon her arrival in England and her introduction to new husband, King Henry, and a court that faults her for the price of her marriage (Suffolk relinquished several domains in the negotiations) and her low French breeding. One by one, though, with the help of Group's glib and conniving Lady Suffolk, Margaret dispenses with those who undermine her place as England's queen. She starts with Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester, whom Wojcik plays as a fashion plate eyeing Margaret—wearing a simple, long dress—over the rims of her sunglasses as she deigns to curtsy (but her repentant speech to her husband after her arrest is heartbreakingly sincere). Next up for Margaret: Gloucester, the lord protector, himself. The banishment and murder of Lady Suffolk is a hard setback, and York's rise confounds her, but by play's end, Blum's Margaret is ready to roar.

Henry VI, Part Three

The first recorded mention of Shakespeare as a playwright in London came from a libelous attack by fellow playwright Robert Greene, a diatribe with an allusion to the bloody napkin episode in Henry VI, Part Three. That casual allusion indicates how that scene must have wowed audiences when it was first played. It is the Jaws moment ("We're going to need a bigger boat") of Shakespeare's career and an actor's Thrilla in Manilla as Margaret taunts the captured York by offering to dry his tears with a napkin steeped in the blood of his young son, Rutland, killed by Clifford while escaping the battle. Blum's Margaret, now wearing a multizipper leather jacket and tight blue jeans, is deliciously vicious here, sadistically gloating over York. Minton erupts into York's passionate condemnation of her, mingled with the grief over his son's murder and the seeming destruction of his house, and though his speech moves us, it just makes Blum's Margaret roll her eyes; until York mentions her poverty and that despite her father's multiple royal titles she is "Yet not so wealthy as an English yeoman." In Blum's playing, we see that Margaret's original poverty will always be a burr in her craw.

York's house, of course, is not destroyed. Onward come his sons: Edward (exquisitely played by Logan Keeler as a capable manager given to lustful living), George (Bosanko in a wonderfully nuanced performance of the second son bristling at any seeming slight), and Richard (Jara Jones, overly deformed and peevishly impetuous). As these three characters gain triumph for the House of York, these three actors reach their nadir in the scene of Edward's courting Elizabeth (Wojcik in a portrayal of sturdy self-confidence) while the two brothers crack vulgar jokes behind his back. In a nice touch, when the brothers ultimately object to Edward marrying the commoner Elizabeth, Wojcik ascends the throne herself in her appeal for understanding: "As this title honors me and mine, so your dislikes, to whom I would be pleasing, doth cloud my joys with danger and with sorrow." The line itself wraps her in King Edward's expressed protection, but in Wojcik's playing, Elizabeth here announces her own strength of will against would-be opponents.

Part Three has three significant cuts. Rutland's murder is gone, and though that doesn't undermine the napkin scene, it does remove the context of how malevolent Clifford (Sumner) can be (he is evil-Richard's equal). Gone, too is the scene in France in which both Margaret and Warwick are soliciting the French king—she for military aid, he for a princess to marry Edward—when news of Edward's marrying Elizabeth arrives, forging an alliance between Margaret and the betrayed Warwick. All of this is thoroughly described later by a messenger to the English court, so cutting the actual scene is of no consequence (especially as DeCarlo plays the messenger in a way that we fully feel the French king's anger, Warwick's lust for revenge, and Margaret's crowing confidence). Finally, Margaret's depression scene upon the news of Warwick's defeat is excised, which is unfortunate in that we miss out on Blum performing it. Even with these major cuts along with deleting some of the story's minor skirmishes, Part Three runs 2:20—there are just too many good acting bits to toss.

The messenger in short-sleeve brown button-down shirt and pig tales sits looking forward as Henry sits behind her smiling gently, wearing a simple winter jacket and blue oxford shirt
Henry VI (Morgan Hooper, back) talks with a messenger, one of many played by Mary DeCarlo, in the Hamlet Isn't Dead production of William Shakespeare's Henry VI plays. Photo courtesy of Hamlet Isn't Dead.

Despite the napkin scene, the emergence of hunchbacked Richard of Gloucester, and the arresting play of Keeler's Edward and Blum's Margaret, this play belongs to the title character. About time, right? He's been the title character of the previous two installments, too. Hooper, however, has the right royal touch on the role's reins and deftly steers his way through Shakespeare's evolution of Henry.

The real Henry was just an infant when his troubled reign began, so Hooper plays the king of Part One as innocently naive and wholly gullible. He is at the full mercy of his squabbling court to make his decisions for him, and the one decision he does make by himself seems innocuous at the time but proves incredibly momentous: when preaching against the brewing rivalry of the houses of York and Lancaster, he seeks to show that either colored rose is as good as the other, but the one he actually buttons to his shirt by way of example is the red rose of Lancaster. York takes note. Director Rightmyer also inserts an interesting piece of blocking when Henry orders York and Suffolk to a peace, and just as they are about to shake hands, Hooper blithely walks between them as his Henry goes off on one of his moralistic spiels. The two lords never shake hands; it probably would not have made any difference in the long run, but we get a visual image of how Henry obliviously fueled the civil broils.

In Part Two, Hooper proves his Henry is more than a one-dimensional fool; he's a multidimensional fool. He transitions from oblivious to baffled by the court intrigue that brings about the downfall of his lord protector, Gloucester; he over-patiently puts up with his wife's obvious infidelity; he sees into York's intent but takes no action; and he becomes paralyzed in the face of real danger, relying on his queen to save him. But he also shows the first sparks of anger, yelling at Margaret in front of the court in the wake of Gloucester's murder (she doesn't take that well, either).

Both Hooper's and Henry's emergence as heroic comes in Part Three. Hooper gives an interesting reading to a line in the opening scene when York is sitting on the throne and pressing his legal right to the crown. "I know not what to say, my title's weak," Henry says in an aside; Hooper screams this line in rage. But as the son of the great Henry V, Henry VI's title is only as weak as his personality makes it. But as his frustration over York's rebellion and Margaret's open defiance builds, Hooper's Henry comes to realize that not just his former privileges but his present woes are all due to his grandfather deposing Richard II. His life, it seems to him, has become one all-consuming act of penance for his family's original sin, so he has no reason to fight—literally. Before the battle near York, Henry throws his hands up, turns everything over to Margaret and Clifford, and sits with the audience to watch the battle until he gets up to deliver his soul-searching molehill speech. Hooper's Henry is mischievously funny in the scene of his capture by the two gamekeepers and religiously ineffective when he regains the crown with the help of Warwick and George and turns the government over to them so he can spend the rest of his days in meditation. But the king who might have been—showing flashes of his father's famous steady temperament (though Shakespeare wouldn't portray his father until he wrote Henry V some six or seven years hence)—shows up in his final scene, standing up to Richard, who is there to murder him. Perhaps harboring a death wish but also with full understanding at last, Hooper's Henry riddles his foe with contemptuous truths while bearing such a brave demeanor that, when Richard, furious, stabs him, the title character ends up dying a hero.

On comes DeCarlo, who has played a chorus and the many messengers through all three parts, to speak the first several lines of Richard's "winter of our discontent" speech that opens Richard III. She ends at the line "Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front."

Yeah, right.

Eric Minton
October 10, 2014

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