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Theatre in Review: Wars of the Roses: Henry VI and Richard III (124 Bank Street Theater)

Greg Pragel, Matt de Rogatis. Photo: Chris Loupos.

This unusual mash-up, taken from Shakespeare's history plays, takes two major risks -- one textual and one having to do with interpretation. Neither pays off, although the production gives one a glimpse of why, in addition to Richard III, the Henry VI trilogy, considered to be among the weakest of the Bard's works, may be all too fitting for these unhappy times.

The Henry VI plays begin with the funeral of Henry V and end with Edward IV on the throne of England, but with trouble brewing, as Richard, Edward's brother, is eyeing the monarchy for himself. Between these events lies a maze of intrigues, betrayals, and military actions, all resulting in an astonishing body count. Compared to Shakespeare's great works, they are potboilers, populated by an army of schemers, many of whom are difficult to distinguish, even when you can remember who is on which side. (It may be the only play to present an entirely unsympathetic Joan of Arc.) It probably doesn't help that Richard III, which begins soon after the conclusion of Henry VI, Part III, is among Shakespeare's most popular works, the title role being a challenge that few classical actors can resist.

Today, the fashion is to boil down the Henry VI trilogy into two parts. A Public Theater production in 1996 never came to life, but a version directed by Barry Kyle for Theatre for a New Audience in 1995, built to a thrilling finale: As Edward and his family waved at the cheering throng, members of the supporting cast ripped pieces of fabric off the walls of Derek McLane's set, revealing the names of all the characters who had been killed over the course of two evenings. Then everything froze and the actor playing Richard of Gloucester (soon to be Richard III) stepped forward and said, "Now" -- which, of course, is the first word of Richard's play. With a sudden shock, one realized that the cycle of betrayal and murder was about to start all over again.

If you're suddenly thinking of today's political scene, don't be surprised. With its steady gaze firmly fixed on the follies of ambition and power, it seems an uncanny mirror of the way we live now. It's a point that jibes with the general attitude of this production, which combines selected scenes from Henry VI, Part III, with a hefty chunk of Richard III. The benefit of this approach is that it establishes Richard's sense of grievance and ambition, using Henry VI as a kind of origin story for the villain who runs amok in his own vehicle. One also gets a stronger-than-usual sense of the nest of intrigue that shapes Richard's character. But there is a pronounced downside, too. Unless one attends the production well-versed in the details of the Wars of the Roses, it's hard to escape the feeling of having walked in more than halfway through the story; sorting out the characters can be even more difficult than usual. The continuity is markedly choppy, too: major events are skipped over, leaving one uncertain. I didn't even notice right away when we had moved on to Richard III, in part because the iconic opening speech ("Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York") has been cut. Fortunately, Richard's other greatest hits -- including "I am not in the giving vein today" and "But I am in/So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin;/Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye" -- remain in the text; had they been removed, I would have been up in arms.

The cuts are part of a brave attempt at turning two plays into a single coherent narrative, but there are other obstacles; these sweeping chronicles have been trimmed back to the point of being made into closet drama. The many killings are performed in highly stylized fashion, with the assassin moving his knife in the general vicinity of the victim, who then departs the stage under his or her own power. The battle scenes are eliminated. The play ends with the scene in which Richard is confronted by his victims, leaving us to imagine his bloody fate. Most oddly, the directors, Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch, have directed everyone to take an extremely naturalistic, conversational approach to the verse -- as if the characters were the members of a vast contemporary dysfunctional royal family.

This shortchanges Shakespeare's words grievously; if the actors have the breath control to deliver lengthy speeches in iambic pentameter, you can't tell by what they're doing here. Time after time, the rhythms of the sentences are broken up, undermining their meaning; the cast fights the text, and it's a losing battle. Furthermore, these plays are unabashed melodrama -- if of a majestic sort -- and they cry out for performances that contain outsized emotions; too often, these actors sound as if they are reciting the text rather than interpreting it. Matt de Rogatis, as Richard, has his moments -- his wooing of Lady Anne, whose loved ones he has eliminated, plays about as well as this difficult scene can, thanks to the help of Rachel Marcus as the put-upon Anne, but his work suffers from a vocal monotony, marked by a pronounced petulance, that becomes hard to take. Richard is physically deformed and psychologically scarred, but unless he has a certain charisma, an ability to command others -- qualities in which de Rogatis' characterization is deficient -- the play won't work. Pendleton takes on the role of King Henry, but the part is so truncated here, and his approach so understated, that he doesn't make much of an impression.

A couple of more sequences land reasonably well, but this is, in general, a listless production that never gains anything in the way of dramatic momentum. Then again, we're not done with Henry and his treacherous entourage. The National Asian American Theatre Company next week opens its two-part take on Henry VI -- another indication that these plays pack a certain contemporary relevance. We'll see what that distinguished company makes of this resonant, yet challenging, material. -- David Barbour

(6 August 2018)

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