With its “Blood and Roses” saga, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey fills the gaps between the rallying St. Crispin’s Day speech of “Henry V” and the ominous “Now is the winter of our discontent” from “Richard III.” More than a half-dozen heads roll during the bloody quest for the throne, mounted on pikes and fence posts throughout this condensed adaptation of the “Henry VI” trilogy. In this production staged in modern dress by adapter-director Brian B. Crowe, the warring houses of York and Lancaster draw an eerie parallel to contemporary manifestations of man’s never-ending ambition and greed.
Crowe has invested the triplet with a fierce vitality, staging the battle scenes in vivid slow motion and as freeze-frame tableaux. While the heroes and villains are quickly defined, a preparatory glance at genealogy charts would be well advised to sort out the turbulent events of the 60-year civil war being depicted.
In the swiftly paced panorama, two dozen actors appear in 75 roles.
As the shy medieval King Henry VI, Ryan Farley is boyish and bookish, and William Metzo offers a vivid performance as a haughty bishop. Hobbling about with a cane as the scheming Gloucester is John Hickok, so deliciously malevolent one wonders what he might do with the role of the crook’d-back king in “Richard III.” Perhaps the most chilling scene finds Hickok rising from a trapdoor in the prison tower to murder his sovereign.
Angela Pierce plays the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, as an alluring blond vixen who futilely awaits the succession of her son, the Prince of Wales, to ascend the throne. The banished Eleanor is well served by Patricia Skarbinski.
The peasant uprising is led by Jack Cade, acted with intensity by Scott Whitehurst, and there are distinctive turns by Rufus Collins as York, Fletcher McTaggart as Suffolk and Frank Copeland as Exeter.
Crowe’s insightful view of the text brings the vital moments into focus with clarity, though cuts were warranted when the previews were running over four hours. What’s missed, however, is the Bard’s unflattering portrait of Joan of Arc, so well drawn in the 1977 RSC production at Stratford-upon-Avon. The warrior saint played here by Jo Williamson makes only a token appearance on the battlements before being marched off to prison.
The gloomy set design of scaffolding and stairs serves the sweep of the action nicely, and the lighting design distinctively accents the gory chaos.