“Henry VI” parts one, two and three make up the first — chronologically — of Shakespeare’s history cycles, but only the most politically minded wonk would put the three plays anywhere near the top of the Bard’s favored works. The often tedious and confusing detailing of the internecine court strife that was rather grandiosely called the Wars of the Roses holds only glimpses of the character development and dramatic nuance that would infuse Shakespeare’s later histories, so it’s an accomplishment that director Karin Coonrod’s two-part adaptation of the three plays is as successful as it is.
That’s not to say that nearly six hours of Henry isn’t more than enough, or that the first part of Coonrod’s adaptation isn’t inferior to the second, but the New York Shakespeare Festival just might have discovered the best way to present these Henries as the festival’s 10-year Shakespeare Marathon winds to its close next summer.
With an ensemble of 10 actors portraying 62 roles (often regardless of gender or race), Coonrod’s two parts of “Henry VI” — which she titles “The Edged Sword” and “Black Storm” — cut and paste Shakespeare’s three plays into a rather surrealistic whole. Coonrod has given each part its own feel, pace and visual style, yet manages to maintain a narrative through-line that both connects the two and gives audiences as clear a history of the philosopher king as they’re likely to encounter.
Part one, “The Edged Sword,” begins with the funeral of the heroic Henry V — a heavy coffin falls with a thud to the raked floor of the Martinson Hall’s performance space — and chronicles the growing rift in the large Plantagenet family as various dukes and earls plot to wrest the throne from peace-loving child king Henry VI. Battles with France notwithstanding (Joan of Arc pays the play a visit on her way to the stake), the bloodthirsty ambition here is of the internal variety, and part two, “Black Storm,” continues the 15th-century Wars of the Roses as the two factions of the Plantagenets slaughter one another for the crown.
Coonrod, who developed this version with John Dias and Henry Israeli over two years in the Public’s drama lab, scatters the production with memorable images that enliven the plays and point up their themes. When the adult Henry VI is captured and held prisoner in part two, the actor portraying him, Tom Nelis, sits through most of the play in a chair suspended high over the action, passively watching the ruthless maneuvering below.
The central image of part one also comes from above: Wooden chairs, one for each character, descend from overhead via long red ribbons meant to represent bloodlines. As the characters move their chairs throughout the act, they produce the twisted tangle of a maypole.
The narrow, raked performance space divides the audience into two halves, and in part one the cast stays in view through the entire play — even though actors face a wall when not part of the action, which, given the action level of part one, means a lot of wall-facing. Despite the director’s efforts to provide some theatrical lift, much of “The Edged Sword” remains a talky, laborious endeavor, well acted but hampered by the play’s heavy weight.
“Black Storm,” however, arrives with a thunderclap of rock music, an about-face from the moody cello accompaniment of part one. An Irish rebellion is led by a Jack Cade (Boris McGiver) who’s more rock star than soldier. When Richard of Gloucester (Graham Winton) makes his appearance, he’s wearing a leather vest and armband that suggest a penchant for S&M (the character, of course, later becomes the best villain in all of Shakespeare, Richard III).
Granted, Coonrod gets a big assist from Shakespeare — each of the latter two segments of Shakespeare’s three-play cycle is an improvement over the previous one. And “Black Storm” includes standout dramatic moments that the cast makes full use of: Angie Phillips as Queen Margaret in a stunningly vicious execution scene, or Winton as Richard tearing into the dark soliloquies that foreshadow the brilliance of “Richard III.”
With Constance Hoffman’s mixed-era costumes and a more expansive use of space (catwalks, an open “backstage” area), the second part of Coonrod’s adaptation simply has a more embracing sense of theater than the first.
And regardless of part, not all of Coonrod’s devices work. When a large architectural column topples to symbolize the breakdown of the Plantagenet family, the effect is both obvious and more than a little cheesy. The burning of Joan’s dress to represent her death at the stake might have been a nice touch — I wouldn’t know, since it occurred behind a column that blocked the view from my side of the audience.
The final image, with King Henry murdered and blood flowing in ribbons down the stage, is of the victors (however temporary their condition might be) dressed in white Gatsby-esque attire (save for the black-clad Richard) dancing a soft-shoe to “Tea for Two.” Perhaps the riskiest of Coonrod’s visual gambits, the dance at first seems to be one of her silliest failures, until the blood begins to stain the hoofers’ spotless shoes and the hem of Queen Margaret’s pretty dress.