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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Henry VI: Blood & Roses
Let us be thankful that Crowe didn't decide to stuff an abridged Richard III into his already over-stuffed and under imagined consideration of the struggle between the royal house of Lancaster (Red Rose) and York (White Rose) to gain the throne of England. We do get a bit of the deformed Richard's malevolence at the tail end of the play as he says, "Now is the winter of our discontent." As one patron said as she departed noisily up the aisle before the final curtain, "Too much. . .this is too much.,"
A large cast has been recruited to play the various members of these two aristocratic families, with some playing as many as six roles. No sooner has an actor been beheaded or stabbed than you can expect to see him reappear within minutes in a different costume looking none the worse for his most recent demise. Notwithstanding Crowe's mammoth undertaking, it is fairly safe to say that whatever the shortcomings (although short is not the operative word), they exist in equal measure in Shakespeare's plays. With most of the slice and dice carnage saved for the last half, we are obliged to observe the more subtle council chamber intrigues and try to figure out why we should care about which conniving relatives are doing what to whom and why.
Henry, an ineffectual and rueful king, has been maneuvered into both a monstrous marriage to the calculating and ambitious Margaret of Anjou and into the middle of the conspiracies between the two most powerful royal families. It is interesting to rediscover the role of the now-sainted Joan of Arc (Jo Williamson), who was then still considered a strumpet and upstart by the British and the chauvinistic Shakespeare in the fighting between the French and the English.
Hero Lord Talbot (Clark Carmichael) and villain Earl of Suffolk (Fletcher McTaggart), politician Duke of York (Rufus Collins) and promoter Earl of Warwick (Scott Whitehurst) are here to plot and counterplot. This part of history moves along somewhat pedantically as it reveals the pettiness, prejudices and greed of the powerful, as it also illuminates for us man's never-ending inhumanity to man.
Considering the hordes under his command and the sheer number of dastardly doings they are assigned, Crowe can be credited for his resourceful use of the slightly raked stage and the theater's aisles. Designer Michael Schweikardt's setting supports the action in various locales with its moving gates, traveler curtains, a bridge, and a spiral staircase. Dane Laffrey's costumes are a fusion of contemporary and not. If the judicious cutting of text explains the lack of pomp and circumstance, you can be assured that none of the battles have been shortchanged.
The performances are mostly admirable. Ryan Farley, as the pathetic bible toting Henry VI, presents the misguided, wishy-washy image that we expect. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, played respectively by John Hickok and Patricia Skarbinski, provide empathetic portraits of the doomed couple. However, it is Angela Pierce's sterling performance, as the conniving and beguiling Margaret of Anjou, that provides the play's single most authoritative and emotionally volatile presence.
In the second half of the play, the somewhat tedious plotting blossoms into the more overt and heinous hostilities between the royal houses of York and Lancaster. The intrigues to unseat the ineffectual and more spiritually motivated King Henry do beg our indulgence despite the fact that they manifest in calculated acts of deception and decapitation. After a while the number of murders committed, the number of severed heads getting hung in a row on the bridge seem almost farcical. Despite the program, I could not keep track of, (nor did I feel obliged to do so) of who generated the most greed or hatred. However, I was especially taken with William Metzo's chilling performance as the ambitious and duplicitous Bishop of Winchester. Metso gives a mesmerizing performance and he looks and sounds like the late and great master of macabre film roles Boris Karloff.
Strategically placing so many scenes from the three plays coherently together had to be daunting. The scenes spotlighting the rebellious laborer Jack Cade (Scott Whitehurst), struck me as expendable, but maybe they just come along too late. Doug West's fight choreography resorts cleverly to slow motion, but many scenes come off rushed and even redundant.
After you've seen more murders whiz by than you would see in a full season of one of those homicide happy TV shows, your mind begins to wander and you tend to lose interest. Nevertheless, one can always find in Shakespeare's history plays an ironic relevance to our own country today. As exemplified in the Henry VI plays, we can see how our own current government has skillfully embarked on a policy designed to enable the powerful, wealthy and greedy and completely ignore the country's good.
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