Thursday, March 24, 2011

Henry VI, Part 3 at the American Shakespeare Center

One of Shakespeare's most intriguing female characters appears in four of his plays.   Yet, hardly anyone sees her portrayed on stage in three of those plays.    The Thespian is speaking of the brave, bold and bitchy Queen Margaret who appears briefly as a young princess in Henry VI, Part 1, rises as the driving force for the Lancastrian faction supporting her husband, the gentle King Henry VI  in Parts 2 and 3 and finally appears as the cursing harridan in King Richard III.    In the past three Actors' Renaissance Seasons at the Blackfriar's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, the Henry VI plays have been produced one per season and lucky audiences have been able to view this neglected Queen played with a vibrant force by the incomparable Sarah Fallon.    The Thespian would recommend this production just to see her performance.

Yet, this production brings so much more for an audience willing to travel to the Shenandoah Valley to see a rarely produced Shakespeare play.    Henry VI, Part 3, brings to the stage a power struggle between the Houses of Lancaster, represented by King Henry VI, Queen Margaret and their son, Prince Edward and the House of York represented by Richard, Duke of York and his sons, Edward, George and Richard.   To get the audience up to speed, the ASC provides a humorous recap of the previous two plays.    We begin at the height of Richard, Duke of York's (Jeremy West) power as he finagles being named heir to the throne, thus disinheriting King Henry VI's young son, Prince Edward. (Miriam Donald).   This enrages Queen Margaret who with the help of Lord Clifford (Chris Johnston) quickly finds the pretext to break the truce, revive the war and execute York.

One could go into the minutiae of Shakespeare's version of the Wars of the Roses.    Are there historical inaccuracies?   Of course there are, but there are also vignettes which his contemporary audience would have recognized as the mythology of their heritage.   It is similar to how we, in America would expect a pageant of the American Civil War to include the declaration  of Thomas Jackson standing like a stone wall or Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address.   And thus, in the 1590's the audience would remember the tales of the duplicitous Earl of Warwick, the kingmaker, the wicked Queen Margaret, the saintly King Henry VI and his prophesy upon meeting the future King Henry VII that he would become the King to unite them all.   Most of all, his audience would have delighted in the rise of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future monstrous King Richard III, crippled and ambitiously plotting by the end of the play to sit upon the throne hard won by his brother, King Edward IV.

Confused yet?   A few audience members were at the performance The Thespian attended.   I know the history and was able to help my fellow seat mates understand who's who among the Richards, Edwards and Henrys on the stage.    Perhaps Shakespeare's weakness is that the focal point of the play changes.    Despite being the title character, King Henry VI, played with a quiet and poignant gentleness by Gregory Jon Phelps, this is a play in which the action swirls about him and the King is powerless to stop the forces that depose him, imprison him, restore him to the throne, depose him again and then with relief end his sad life.    Jeremy West, has a cocky assuredness as Richard, Duke of York and manages to maintain his dignity through the humiliating molehill scene where he is mocked before execution.  John Harrell builds on that cockiness as the once and future King Edward IV, triumphantly strutting in his victories and never far from regaining his triumphs in the few times his character falters.  

Patrick Midgley embodies the weaknesses of George, Duke of Clarence, a man who seeks power and eagerly trades sides based on who is likely to grant power to him.   Tyler Moss, as Warwick the Kingmaker, is proud and defiant, leading the initial overthrow of King Henry in favor of Edward IV and then changing his tune when King Edward betrays him.  

In the comic seductive wooing scene of King Edward and Elizabeth, Lady Grey, Alison Glenzer has the dignity of a woman who will not betray her morals to secure her sons' inheritance.   She makes a easy transition to Edward's queen, and in a brief scene when she fears for the life of her unborn child after Edward is deposed she shows Elizabeth's strength in adversity.

In a poignant minor scene, Jeremiah Davis as a Lancastrian who kills his father and Jeremy West as a Yorkist who has killed his son show the cost of war in few words and great emotion.

The Thespian began this review with a reason to see this show in the performance of Sarah Fallon as Queen Margaret.   Let me leave you with another reason, the performance of Benjamin Curns as Richard, Duke of Gloucester.     It is this play that lays the seeds for the villain of the conclusion of this tetralogy, in King Richard III.    Shakespeare takes this character from loyal son fighting for his father and elder brother's rights to the throne to once the throne is gained an immediate desire to gain the throne for himself.    Mr. Curns built his character into a commanding force upon the Blackfriar's stage.   The audience sees glimpses of the monster to come in his relishing his role in the death of Prince Edward and the murder of King Henry VI.    One can only hope that Mr. Curns returns next season to continue in King Richard III.

Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 will be played in repertory with The Comedy of Errors, John Marston's The Malcontent, Thomas Middleton's A Trick To Catch The Old One and Look About You, author unknown through April 1, 2011.   For tickets and other performance information please visit

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