BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
he Edged Sword (Part 1);
Black Sword (Part 2),
During the past month the Public Theater has sent us hurtling back to past times to examine a variety of family histories. In November, we accompanied a young Chinese-American yuppie narrator to China for a look at his family's early nineteenth century conversion to Christianity. The play was Golden Child (and the narrator a stand-in for its playwright. Last week, we joined an African-American yuppie and his 187-year-old grandfather on a flying bed examination of life on a Virginia plantation just before the bloody Nat Turner uprising. The play was Insurrection and the narrator was again a stand-in for its playwright. This week's trip back in time was courtesy of William Shakespeare, and his interpreter director Karen Conrood who, using the dramatic device of a BBC documentary on the House of Windsor, took us on an unconventional six hour visit with the reigning royals of medieval times, the Plantagenets. The current Royals' messy private lives seem mighty pale compared to the bloody feuds that drained away the lifeblood of this branch ofthe family tree.
The Shakespeare family history plays, while calling for the longest audience commitment in time and money, (the two three-hour-long parts are shown and sold as separate plays), are actually a compressed version of Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays. The originals total 15 acts and 45 scenes as compared to the current two part version's 2 acts and 32 scenes. Since the trilogy represents Shakespeare's earliest and least popular work and is considered something of a practice field for the title character of the much admired Richard III, a faster-paced version of these largely neglected plays come as a welcome addition to the Public's Shakespeare Marathon. Like the movie version of Richard III that starred Sir Ian McKellrn, this abridgement is filled with surreal, humorous touches,. Thanks to a production that is spare in every respect--cast size, staging and costumes, the convoluted chronicle of Henry's life is easy to follow, provided you arrive early enough to read the program's scene-by-scene synopsis and the inserted family chronology.
The story unfolds against the canvas of the sixty-year conflict known as the War of the Roses, the defeat of Joan of Arc and the cynical "resolution" of the Jack Cade Rebellion, and the ascension to the throne of King Edward. Throughout all these events, there is the single overarching story of a family feud and how the disintegration of one family's value systems spreads to the society at large. The king who is crowned in his cradle, unlike his cousins, would have preferred to concern himself with spiritual concerns than affairs of state. He is a gentle man, a vacillator and so conciliatory that he gives away his son's right to succession, a decision that enrages his more power-conscious wife.
Ten actors play dozens of key and ensemble roles. Everyone and no one is a star. Each takes at least one super star turn and the line delivery is uniformly clear and energetic. Tom Nellis who plays Henry VI, (as well as the Bastard of Orleans and some Ensemble parts), has just the right gentle good looks to be a convincing boy-king and gently boyishman-king who never loses his air of vulnerability and goodness. He is most memorable in Part 2. His Queen is outstandingly played by Angie Phillips. She ignites every facet of the complex character of Margaret--the passionate lover and mourner of the duplicitous Suffolk (Graham Winton), the outraged warrior queen and the devoted and finally grief-stricken mother. Like the other two women in this fine ensemble, she also does a seamless sex switch. Steven Skybell is a magnificent as the cunning York.
To move this long and bloody family drama from the crowning of the infant king, through his marriage, imprisonment, and the aftermath of his death at the hand of the bitter and conniving Richard, the Martinson Theater stage has been transformed into a runway straddled on each side by the audience. Some scenes are seen as shadow plays behind a scrim (which in the end is removed to reveal a bloody wall), Joan of Arc's death is strikingly pictured by means of a burning paper dress. A few scenes move from center stage to a ramp to one side of the audience and, in Part 2 in a small balcony. This last is the only blind spot, (for people in some seats), in a seating arrangement that otherwise gives everyone a great view. While the set by P.K. Wish is spare throughout, each act contains different scenic symbols to underscore the characters' crumbling loyalties. Chairs attached to red ribbons, drop to the stage as the family blood ties become undone. A very utilitarian metal staircase becomes the contested throne. The grown child-king is imprisoned in a swing chair hoisted up high above the stage, a lofty observatory of the danse macabre being executed below.
Kevin Adams' lighting echoes the increasing gloom and doom of the unfolding tragedy, as do Constance Hoffman's costumes which are golden in part one and turn a dreary gray in part two. We did think that Richard's son the Duke of Gloucester would have been a more convincing "misshapen, undigested lump" if his weight lifter's torso had been covered with a leather jacket instead of a muscle-baring vest. Mark Dresser's moody double bass accompaniment, moves from one area of the theater to another, along with the actors and the action.
The macabre humor which is evident throughout the plays adds much to the accessibility and enjoyment of this production, and serves as a welcome counter balance to the many grizzly events. It turns battle scenes into surreal ballets and the Duke of York's speech outlining his claim to the throne into a hilarious spoof of a corporate sales presentation. Without giving anything away, the last of these surreal moments is great fun.
Do you need to see both parts to enjoy either? Probably not. And if you see only one part, which one? Having seen both parts in one day (matinee and evening), it's hard to say. Ideally Ms. Conrood would have sharpened her editorial pencil some more and cut the entire trilogy sufficiently for one long four or four and a half hour production with perhaps three stretch and coffee breaks for actors and audience.
1996, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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