Henry VI Review: A rare staging of Shakespeare’s first three plays

The National Asian American Theatre Company’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy is unlike any you’ve seen in New York before. This is true largely because you are unlikely ever to have seen these plays in New York before.  The New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater last presented Henry VI parts 1 and 2 (not 3) at the Delacorte in Central Park in 1970, and there is no record of any of the three ever being produced on Broadway, much less all three of them.*

The reason seems simple: These first three plays written by William Shakespeare, when he was still in his twenties, “have prompted much more scholarship than admiration,” the late Harvard professor Herschel Baker wrote in an essay that tries to be kind:  “For a young writer to undertake so big a subject as fifty years of English history required both skill and valor; and if the skill is sometimes lacking, the valor certifies his bold intention.”

There is no getting around how unwieldy and often tedious the Henry VI plays are for theater lovers who aren’t Shakespearean scholars or English history buffs.

Taking on the challenge, director Stephen Brown-Fried has adapted the Henry VI trilogy, condensing the three parts into two (with separate admissions), reducing what would have been a 12-hour running time down to about six hours, including intermissions: Part 1 is subtitled Foreign Wars; Part 2, Civil Strife.  The  NAATCO production of Brown-Fried’s adaptation, which he also directs, is simply but gorgeously designed, largely well acted, and effectively staged, especially in  the numerous battle scenes — with exciting choreography, suspenseful music and dramatic lighting.

There is no pretending that this Henry VI will singlehandedly spark a rise in the plays’ reputation, certainly not in my household. The work demands a level of attention and patience far exceeding, say, “Twelfth Night.” But the ambitious production does more than just give the gift of bragging rights to Shakespearean bucket-listers.  There are some payoffs that come with the discovery of an unfamiliar work.  For example, we see Shakespeare’s take on Joan of Arc (here named Joan la Pucelle), which is decidedly less saintly than Shaw’s (quite the opposite), especially when performed by Kim Wong as an all-out warrior adept at both the martial arts and biting.

Wisely, NAATCO has put together two relatively brief videos (placed both on their website and in monitors in the lobby at the A.R.T. Theaters) to orient the audience in advance, by providing historical context.

What the company did not do, and should have, is include a synopsis in the playbill, and at the very least list the cast in order of first appearance rather than alphabetically. Sixteen actors portray some 100 characters, and there is just no way that ordinary mortals can keep track of who’s who without some assistance.  (Ron Domingo alone has 12 roles, including a duke, an earl, two soldiers, insurrectionist Jack Cade and King Lewis of France.) If the halving of the running time is certainly welcome, it also means that more of the characters rush by, hardly registering, than is true in the original.  Adding to the confusion is the casting of several actresses in male roles, and sometimes in both male and female roles.

Still, there are enough vivid performances to anchor this English history lesson, which begins with the funeral of the triumphant warrior King Henry V, who conquered much of France, and presents a half-century of what Shakespeare saw as England’s disorder and decline under the well-meaning but ineffectual reign of  Henry V’s son and successor.  Jon Norman Schneider shines as Henry VI, a weak but passionate monarch, though he gets surprisingly little stage time considering the play is named after his character.  Paul Juhn is the crafty Duke of Suffolk who convinces Henry to wed the French princess Margaret, portrayed with a flourish by Mahira Kakkar. But the married Suffolk has an underhanded strategy, seeing Margaret as his personal plaything and his Trojan Horse:

“Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the King; But I will rule both her, the King and realm.”

The torridness of Margaret and Suffolk’s affair, and Margaret’s conniving viciousness, don’t achieve full flower until Part 2.  Indeed, those seeking out Game of Throne-like violent thrills will prefer Part 2, which is rife with scenes of torturing unto death. It’s also 15 minutes shorter than Part 1, and with less exposition. But skipping Part 1 will mean missing Joan, (Kim Wong taking on four different characters in Part 2.)

Rajesh Bose as Richard Plantagenet the Duke of York is one of several scheming antagonists who are appropriately magisterial. He is the leader of the white rose faction, bickering and battling with the red rose faction (thankfully, the combatants wear one or the other color rose on their lapels so we know who’s on which side.)

David Huyhn’s seventh role in the play is as a thrillingly sly, nasty Richard, the same character who will go on to star in “Richard III,” another one of Shakespeare’s 10 history plays – and, like almost everything else Shakespeare wrote for the stage, far far more popular.

Click on any photograph by William P. Steele to see it enlarged.

Caption for photograph up top: Scene from Henry VI with James Seol (Young Clifford), John D. Haggerty (Earl of Northumberland), Rajesh Bose (Duke of York) and Mahira Kakkar (Queen Margaret)

Henry VI

NAATCO at A.R.T. /New York Theaters

By William Shakespeare. Directed and adapted by Stephen Brown-Fried

Set design by Kimie Nishikawa, lighting design by Reza Behjat, costume design by Nicole Slaven, sound design by Toby Algya, movement directors Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin.

Cast: Rajesh Bose, Ron Domingo, John D. Haggerty, Wai Ching Ho, David Huynh, Michelangelo Hyeon, Anna Ishida, Paul Juhn, Vanessa Kai, Mahira Kakkar, Mia Katigbak, Jon Norman Schneider, James Seol, David Shih; Sophia Skiles  and Kim Wong

Running time: Part 1, three hours including a 15 minute intermission. Part 2, 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission.

Tickets: $45 for each part, $80 for both

Henry VI will be shown in repertory through September 8, 2018

 

Also: pre-show series at 6:30 p.m. in the lobby

Series II: Thursday, August 23 and Thursday, August 30
Speaker: Michael Sexton

Come with questions, share your insights, and chat with the Director of the Public Shakespeare Initiative, Michael Sexton, to enhance your experience of our performances.

Series III: Tuesday, August 28
Speaker: Vimala Pasupathi

Professor Vimala Pasupathi speaks about the women of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, in particular his depictions of Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou.

 

* Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy should not be confused with the Bard’s four other Henry plays, which are performed more frequently: Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, Henry V, and Henry VIII.

As if there’s something in the air, a company named What Dreams May Co. in partnership with Queens Shakespeare also presented all three parts of Henry VI (also condensed into two parts) for a total of a half dozen performances in January; Austin Pendleton directed “Wars of the Roses” that adapted Henry VI part three with Richard III; and the Drilling Company presented Henry VI part three last summer as part of their Shakespeare in the Parking Lot.

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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