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Theatre in Review: Henry VI (National Asian American Theatre Company/ART New York Theatres)

John D. Haggerty, Anne Ishida, Jon Norman Schneider. Photo: William P. Steele.

The stage deck is painted red in NAATCO's two-part adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy, and for good reason: In these plays, the very earth of Britain is repeatedly stained with blood. The action begins with the death of Henry V, followed by the ascension to the throne of his son, also named Henry -- events that trigger a years-long round of intrigues, betrayals, and rebellions, leaving a trail of corpses across England and France. It's a tournament populated by a seemingly endless number of players -- male and female -- all of them equally amoral in their pursuit of power.

Situated Henry V and Richard III -- the trilogy sets the stage for the latter -- the Henry VI dramas are bookended by masterpieces, and, in truth, they pale by comparison. Current thinking suggests that Christopher Marlowe functioned as Shakespeare's collaborator on this project, but two geniuses did not double the brilliance of the works. Among them, they contain only one of the playwright's greatest hits (the ever-popular "The first thing we do -- let's kill all the lawyers") and audiences not thoroughly up to speed on the internecine conflicts between the houses of York and Lancaster -- aka the Wars of the Roses -- may find themselves flipping through their programs, trying to remember who is allied with whom. The choppy continuity is probably not helped by editing the three plays into two roughly three-hour segments, even if this is a fairly standard approach nowadays.

And yet: Seeing these characters scheme their way through this maze of plot and counterplot, making alliances that everyone knows will soon be broken, switching sides with abandon, and committing acts of murder sometimes with cool detachment and sometimes with appalling satisfaction, one is inescapably reminded of Shakespeare's enduring modernity. These plays, written in the late sixteenth century, depicting events of nearly a century earlier, are defined by a cool, calculating gaze that seems thoroughly of today. (One is reminded of Hilary Mantel's cold-eyed examinations of Tudor politics, or, I suppose, the video gorefest Game of Thrones.) In this adaptation, by Stephen Brown-Fried, who also directed, Part I: Foreign Wars focuses on England's conflict with a rebellious France, guided by Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc to you), and the growing divisions between York and Lancaster. Part II: Civil Strife takes in the devil's bargain made by Henry -- the most ineffectual of kings, who makes Richard II look like a Visigoth warrior -- to retain the throne; the demagogic Jack Cade, whose rabble-rousing provides the Duke of York with a dress rehearsal for his own rebellion; and the battle that unseats Henry, puts the House of York on the throne, and provides Richard, the new king's brother, with a clear pathway to seize the crown for himself. If the action is circular, treacherous, and, ultimately, self-defeating, this production maintains an intriguing double focus, remaining true to the text while uncannily mirroring the contents of today's news broadcasts.

This is by far the most ambitious project yet attempted by NAATCO -- a company that has combined a focus on new plays with fine work on such classics as Awake and Sing! -- and, under Brown-Fried's direction, the overall performance is, almost necessarily, uneven. The members of the company double and triple in roles, shuttling back and forth between minor bits and characters of major consequence. Not everyone is well cast all the time, and, at the performances I attended, most of the actors were still settling into their roles, which resulted in a number of flubbed lines. Still, the sheer sweep of Shakespeare's vision holds one captive, and the fast-paced, highly economical staging -- aided by the battle scenes choreographed by movement directors Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin -- never sags for a moment.

And both parts feature strong, striking performances that carry one past the bumpier parts. In Jon Norman Schneider's performance, it's possible to believe that the eternally vacillating, scholarly Henry might be gay, so lacking is he in the kingly virtues that might hold together his fractious kingdom, but the actor also preserves a mystery about the character that keeps him compelling even when he makes infuriatingly wrong decisions or refuses to take decisive action. He is also capable of suddenly lashing out at an enemy, moments that are especially shocking, given his natural state of restraint. Mia Katigbak, a bright spot in any production in which she appears, dominates much of the first half as the Duke of Gloucester, the imperturbable power behind Henry's throne, whose skill at realpolitik doesn't spare him from scandal and death after his wife is banished for an act of sorcery. Mahira Kakkar is a galvanic presence as Margaret of Anjou, a minor princess -- her father is both a French duke and King of Naples -- who marries Henry and lives to regret it, taking to battle in order to defend her husband's kingdom and, in the process, committing one of the trilogy's most egregious acts. (A scene depicting the supremely awkward first kiss between Henry and Margaret speaks volumes about the future of this royal marriage.) Rajesh Bose captures the Duke of York's festering sense of grievance; he also amuses with his windy explanations of why he, and not some Lancaster pretender, should be ruling England. Vanessa Kai is a compellingly powerful and dignified figure as the Earl of Warwick, an exemplary military man caught between the warring houses, to his eventual ruin.

Brown-Fried's staging is filled with inventive touches. A royal coffin opens up to become a garden, from which characters declare their allegiances by plucking red or white flowers. The killing of young Rutland, York's son, is presented with maximum heartlessness, as is the chilling moment when Margaret wipes the boy's handkerchief, soaked in his blood, on his father's distressed face. Lady Grey, who has captivated Edward, Duke of York and Henry's successor -- in a scene that plays creepily like sexual harassment at first -- scandalizes York's family by publicly kissing him, thus destroying the hoped-for possibility of his marriage to the sister of the King of France. When a character is killed, he or she merely gets up and leaves, joining the legion of ghosts who haunt the play -- until the death of Henry, when the director finds a starkly simple way of indicating the true cost of all the carnage that has come before.

The action plays out on Kimie Nishikawa's sleek, uncluttered set -- with the audience seated on two sides -- the red deck littered with grey confetti, and with eight posts -- their top sections wound with rope -- used to redefine the space from time to time. Reza Behjat's lighting makes especially good use of a single side position that blasts out strongly defined looks. Nicole Slaven's costumes adeptly build a bridge between two centuries -- using contemporary fabrics and pieces of clothing to assemble a coherent historic universe; especially impressive is Henry's darkly glittering black-and-gold livery. Toby Algya's sound design includes trumpets, drums, cannon fire, bells, and other evocative effects.

There's no pretending that the Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare's greatest, but his appraisal of the ways of power remains remarkably fresh, and, in these political times, he often seems to be speaking directly to us. Even in a sometimes-unsatisfying production, this is an involving account of games of power in which the winner takes all but the fruits of victory grow rotten with stunning speed. -- David Barbour

(23 August 2018)

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