The action is bloody and the characters deliciously villainous in this abridged version of parts one, two and three of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” as seen through the inventive eyes of Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater. Clocking in at just under four hours, the fast-paced production is first-rate in every respect.
Kahn has taken a cleaver to the three plays about the Wars of the Roses, the 15th-century struggle for England’s throne. He has ruthlessly edited scenes and characters while leaving in plenty of gore and mayhem. This makes for some abbreviated appearances by characters who depart rather violently, such as Joan of Arc.
But key characters are richly defined by members of the large cast. Front and center is Henry himself, the peace-loving monarch who inherited the throne as a child and spent his life defending it from vipers. Philip Goodwin is delightful in the lead, an island of righteousness in a sea of liars. The contrast is vividly underscored by his plain gray suits, a nice touch.
Other standouts include Helen Carey’s scheming wife, Edward Gero’s uncompromising Richard Plantagenet, Ted van Griethuysen’s principled Lord protector, Gary Sloan’s opportunistic Earl of Suffolk and each of the Duke of York’s three bloodthirsty sons, especially Wallace Acton as the maniacal hunchback, Richard.
Kahn’s consistently original approach to the classics, a hallmark of his 10 years at the Shakespeare Theater’s helm, is again on display in this entertaining adaptation. The theater’s enviable financial support is put to good use in a classy production that is rich in texture and special effects but also sparse when it needs to be. “Henry VI” is filled with surprising touches, from fight scenes that vary from the absurd to the macabre to a last-minute leap into the 20th century.