Theater

“Henry VI,” Shakespeare’s Forbidding Chronicle of Civil War, Rings Clearly Today

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Apparently, there are worse types to lead a country than a greedy, mendacious bully. Just ask Margaret (Mahira Kakkar), the Frenchwoman pressed into diplomatic service by the Earl of Suffolk (Paul Juhn), who marries her to the English King Henry VI (Jon Norman Schneider) and hopes to control them both. Margaret complains about her royal spouse to Suffolk, now her lover: “All his mind is bent to holiness,/To number Ave-Maries on his beads;/His champions are the prophets and apostles,/…[A]nd his loves/Are brazen images of canonized saints.” Mild and pious Henry may be, but his weak rule is the wound through which gushes an ocean of civil woe in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Parts 1, 2, and 3, currently being staged with great style and verve by the National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO). One lesson from this engaging account: The downfall of a bad ruler may be prologue to one who’s even worse.

These early-career Shakespeare history plays, which include the better-known Richard III, are devilishly hard to produce, particularly outside of England or in the absence of, say, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s resources. Covering decades of English dynastic struggles between the houses of Lancaster and York (known as the Wars of the Roses) as well as the loss of French lands won by Henry V, the crusade of Joan of Arc, and civil clashes such as Jack Cade’s 1450 peasant rebellion, the three parts of Henry VI are crammed with persons, locales, and almost comically swift reversals of loyalty. You see a young playwright eagerly learning his craft, stage-managing bloody battles or tracking serpentine genealogies in blank verse, and miss the rich inner lives of characters in later works. What we get instead is late-medieval soap opera, which for bingers of Game of Thrones or Wolf Hall might be perfect programming. An uncut staging of the trilogy would run about ten hours, sans intermissions. Adapter-director Stephen Brown-Fried has pared the text down to nearly half the verbiage, or two nights that clock in at five and a quarter hours.

In exchange, we get perhaps twice the narrative bang. Brown-Fried has assembled a solid acting ensemble and design team for this cynical, gory epic. Kakkar, delicate yet iron-cast, skillfully rides one of the most satisfying character arcs. As the French girl who comes of age in the English court and grimly hangs on to power, she transforms into the “tiger’s heart, wrapp’d in a woman’s hide,” scorned by the Duke of York (Rajesh Bose), whom Margaret will eventually torture to death. Bose himself cuts a coolly calculating figure, a man who claims a birthright to the throne but, more important, has the urge to command that Henry seems to lack. The dynamic Sophia Skiles looks daggers and speaks flames as Eleanor, the scheming wife of Humphrey of Lancaster (stalwart Mia Katigbak), Henry’s guardian. As the Earl of Warwick, Vanessa Kai is an icy, proud, all-around kickass. I was positively tickled by Juhn’s suave, oily Suffolk and Anna Ishida’s perpetually pissed-off Somerset. With his gleaming shaved head and coiled physique, the sharp David Huynh emerges in the second part as York’s son Richard — renamed the Duke of Gloucester — the disabled malcontent who will murder his way to power.

Keeping all these plotters and traitors and Frenchies clear is not easy, especially when NAATCO must perforce double- and triple-cast actors. Still, lean staging and deft character work keep the lines of allegiance mostly clear. (A video display in the lobby is a handy primer.) The choices for act breaks are dramaturgically clever, too. The intermission in the first part comes with Suffolk’s soliloquy about controlling the throne through Margaret. Then the first part ends with York smugly sharing his plan for gaining the crown. These villainous solo bits of direct address nicely prefigure Richard III, who divulges similarly ambitious impulses but in a much more concentrated, nihilistic way — divorced from love of family, nation, even self.

The design here is artful, resourceful, and sleekly ahistorical. Kimie Nishikawa’s blood-red floor is partly obscured by ash-like black flakes, which the feet of the actors shift here and there over the course of the plays. This physical environment connotes violence, bloodlines, the burned bodies of history. Nicole Slaven’s costumes are equally effective, a period-punk mash-up of camouflage, combat boots, and black leather. Given all the combat and bloodletting the action requires, movement directors Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin get a lot of mileage out of slow-motion staff fighting and Reza Behjat’s percussive strobe lighting.

Apart from condensing and keeping the action fluid, Brown-Fried’s editing shows a feminist urge to suppress fanciful bits that have aged less well. Gone are the scenes featuring two female characters — Joan of Arc and Eleanor — summoning demons for counsel, which were probably lit a.f. on the Elizabethan stage but strike a witchy-misogynist note today. Then there’s the heavy-handed stuff, such as the stiff passages that follow Henry’s anguished battlefield soliloquy in Part 3 (Schneider delivers a tender, moving rendition). Before horrified Henry’s eyes, a son drags the body of a soldier he’s killed, only to realize that it’s his own father; a speech later, a father does the same, discovering he’s killed his son. Rhyming lamentation follows. In its ritualized desolation it’s nearly Beckettian, but the section feels like something young Will cribbed from a morality play. You won’t miss it.

Even trimmed to manageable size, Henry VI is a serious investment of time and energy in what boils down to some very sketchy English folks squabbling over a round bit of metal. (LOTR this is not.) Even so, I never tired of NAATCO’s appealing, expert ensemble as it navigated the twisty chronicles. The last time I saw Henry VI performed was 2004’s two-part, all-male Rose Rage. (In a welcome reversal, actresses play women and men here.) I’m happy to revisit this fratricidal-regicidal pageant, in all its tribal, speechifying glory. Moreover, I’m grateful that NAATCO gives work to some of the city’s finest Asian-American talent. Casting agents and artistic directors, take note: Enlisting a diverse group of players is a surefire way to make ancient texts release truly universal music.

Henry VI
A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 West 53rd Street
866-811-4111
naatco.org
Through September 8

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