ASC: Henry VI, part 2

Reviewing productions at the American Shakespeare Center is a bit different from reviewing productions elsewhere. This is because the ASC has a house style. So you don’t wonder what a particular director’s vision is going to do, or how well a concept will work with a particular show, because the vision is always the same, the concept is always the same. And it always works.

The house style is Original Practices Shakespeare. In brief, this means a fast-paced delivery, continuous flow of action (no pauses between scenes), universal lighting (lights are on full over the actors and the audience), and most importantly audience interaction. Original Practices is an attempt to perform Shakespeare under the conditions for which he wrote. As a result, seeing Shakespeare performed this way for the first time is a revelation. And each subsequent time, it always illuminates the text in a new way, and it is always enjoyable.

So every time I go to the ASC, I know that’s the place I’m starting from, which means in terms of a review, I’m left with talking about specific choices that were made in specific moments, and how well the casting worked, that is, how well actors I have seen multiple times fit into these particular roles.

The ASC is in the middle of a project to produce all eight history plays over four years. They are doing the second tetralogy during their fall seasons and the first tetralogy during their spring seasons. This spring I saw the second of those four plays, Henry VI, part two.

Both fall and spring are Original Practices, but the spring season is known as the Actors Renaissance season where they go a step further by having no director and a limited rehearsal period. The actors put the show together themselves, they pick out the costumes, and often only have one week of rehearsal before the show is before an audience.

One the one hand, some moments of the production are more polished than others; on the other hand, it’s really excited to watch just how good it is, knowing the conditions under which the production came about.

Let’s just get a couple things out of the way. I’ve never seen a bad production at the ASC. If you go, you are going to see a good show. Two, I love the Henry Six plays, so anytime someone is doing them, I will encourage you to see them, because they just don’t get enough love. Now that you know the production starts with double love from me, I will delve into specifics and maybe get a little picky.

There were a couple lovely staging moments at the beginning, but I was hoping such cleverness would carry through the entire production more than it did. Henry VI, part two is the second play of a trilogy. The ASC staged part one, but that was a year ago. Some audience members now would not have seen it. Some that had would surely forget some of the details. How does the ASC remind you of the story? Oh, via some scrolling text a la Star Wars. The audience ate it up.

I also loved the staging of the conjuring scene. The Duchess of Gloucester (Allison Glenzer) is an ambitious woman who wants her husband to be king. He is content just as Protector of the land. The Duchess of Gloucester decides to employ witchcraft to further her cause. The two conjurers lay a black fabric covered in symbols over the center of the stage (where the trap happens to be). The head of the spirit appears in the fabric, stretching and twisting it. The lines of the spirit are spoken by a different actor, giving a disembodied sound that works very well.

Once you’ve been to the ASC, you’ll start to get to know the actors quite well, and you see in each individual show how well they fit into the parts they have been cast. Benjamin Curns and Allison Glenzer are lovely as the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. (Curns also appears at the end of the play as Richard the Crookback, and you can’t help but wonder if in two years we’ll be seeing him as a title character.)

René Thornton, Jr. turns in a strong performance as Richard, Duke of York. Sarah Fallon is Margaret. And since Margaret is my favorite Shakespeare creation, I’m not sure I can ever be satisfied with a performance, but I’ll leave my prejudice aside and tell you that Fallon is strong and biting in the role. Over the four plays Margaret appears in, Shakespeare gives her an incredible arc and journey. Because the ASC is producing these plays a year apart, it makes it hard for Fallon to play the arc as completely as she could if they were doing them all at once. So it seems to me she has decided to take each play on as its own entity. At the end of part one, Margaret is quite a young girl. In Fallon’s performance in part two, we see none of that character (I offer this as way of observation, not criticism). Her Margaret is a fully mature woman from the onset of part two. And while I think there are some things that get lost due to this choice, here is what it adds: it makes Henry even more alone. He is far and away the youngest character on that stage. By choosing to play Margaret as not near him in age, Henry becomes even more isolated. All the adults are telling him what to do, trying to wrest power, manipulating him, and fighting with each other. And Henry is utterly and completely alone. In that respect, I think the choice works really well. (Henry VI is played by a woman, Denice Burbach. I think Shakespeare would be delighted by the fact that while in his day, female parts were played by young boys, today young boys parts are frequently played by females.)

Gregory Jon Phelps is excellent at playing earnest, and so I didn’t think he fit into the role of Suffolk as well as roles I have seen him play in the past. I just prefer my Suffolk slimier. A couple of years ago he was playing all the male ingénue parts, and very well. But, according to the scenario I invented in my own head, he got tired of this and so grew a beard, and now he plays a different type of role. I’m not always sure if he is old enough for them yet (meaning the age he feels onstage, as opposed to his actual age).

And then there is the ever-reliable John Harrell. For me, this man can do no wrong. In this production he is the hypocritical and insincere Bishop of Winchester. He plays his character in a much-needed contrast with the others. There is a lot of arguing in this play, and while the other characters shout at each other, Harrell slips in quiet but absolutely oily insults.

But despite the actors fitting into some roles better than others, they are still always good, because they are masters of the text. I have become so accustomed to a uniformly high quality when I attend a production at the American Shakespeare Center, that I was surprised and disappointed this time to see one or two members of the ensemble who were just not up to the level of the others.

Finally, props to the fantastic fight direction from J. Colleen Kelly! During one scene two commoners duel each other. They bring out bags of rocks to fight with. The scene is staged so that we clearly hear the weight and the sounds of the real rocks one of the characters is carrying. But then the other character is the one that wins the fight, beating the first with her foam rocks. It’s a lovely moment of theatre magic. Finally, Somerset’s death is pure kick-ass. He is stabbed in the stomach and lifted into the air with the knife. Awesome.

I can’t wait to come back in a year for part three.

Henry VI, part two
3 stars
Through April 4


Correction. I think the ASC is doing ALL the history plays as part of this project, not just the main eight. I've heard they'll be doing King John, and I can only assume Henry VIII is planned for the future as well. It's a great opportunity for audiences to see these rarely done works.

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