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Hot damn, they’ve done it again! Michael Kahn and his Shakespeare Theatre minions have capped their ongoing historical—what is it now?…septology?…octology?…whatever—with an exhilarating, single-evening Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, & 3. Not only is Kahn’s triumphant staging a rip-roaring theatrical tour de force, it manages the not inconsiderable feat of rendering the labyrinthine intrigues of the War of the Roses comprehensible.
And it does it all without benefit of the linguistic lushness that characterizes most of the Shakespearean canon. The most famous line in the trilogy is “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” hardly the Bard at his most eloquent. Still, deprived of verbal flourishes, Kahn sows arresting images of battlefield cruelty—from Mad Maxish wantons wreaking havoc to a mother whose arms have been broken so she won’t be able to hug her dead child—and reaps results that are plenty evocative in their own right.
The production appears to have been conceived in part as a window on the other plays in the series, with Kahn reshaping moments from his own mountings of Richard II and III, and Henry IV and V in ways that link characters far more surely than bloodlines ever could. You needn’t have seen those productions to appreciate this one, but its approach certainly offers perks to Shakespeare Theatre subscribers.
For those just joining them, the story thus far: In Richard II, an aloof king got himself deposed by Henry of Lancaster. Henry IV, Parts I & 2 chronicled the usurper’s transition from rebel to defender of the realm and the maturing of his wastrel son Harry into a responsible king-in-training. Henry V then picked up with a rousing tale of young Harry’s victories in France but concluded with a somber coda about how his “infant” son, “did this king succeed/Whose state so many had the managing,/That they lost France and made his England bleed.”
That coda, in a nutshell, is the story of Henry VI, the epic tale of a decidedly non-epic hero: a “nice” king so determined to avoid conflict that he brings it upon himself in waves. Bowing first to one adviser, then to another, and failing dismally to chart his own course, Henry makes a thorough hash of governing. Not that he really had a shot. Because his grandfather was a usurper, two competing lineages claimed the British throne in the 1400s: Henry’s house of Lancaster and Richard’s house of York, with enough animosity between them to spark a civil war that lasted decades. On stage, after a nifty Rose Garden contretemps (modern implications are definitely intended), the Yorks wear white roses, the Lancasters red, while Henry—played with remarkable gravity by 12-year-old Michael Barry in two early scenes and with puppyish winsomeness by Philip Goodwin thereafter—appears to wish hybrids had been invented so everyone could wear pink. Unfortunately, equivocation gets you nowhere in 15th-century politics, and by the end of Henry VI, every inch of English territory has been soaked with blood, and a hunchbacked Richard III is waiting in the wings, plotting further disasters.
Even as abridged by the director, the plot’s twists and turns are absurdly complicated—they’d sound unfathomable in synopsis so let’s not even try—but they’re rendered at the Lansburgh Theater with remarkable clarity. Kahn’s pruning of some 15 hours of material to a more manageable four hours of performance tightens the trilogy’s dramatic structure considerably and keeps most of the action in England. It’s been ages since I read the plays in college, so I can’t vouch for specifics, but Joan of Arc, whose subduing usually requires most of Part 1, is reduced in Kahn’s version to a pair of quick, snarling scenes (one introducing her, the other burning her at the stake). And where the playwright tended to head off for Anjou and Burgundy when the politics got too thick in Parts 2 and 3, Kahn doesn’t. He’s having too much fun in England, conjuring such temporally bizarre but inspired sequences as the one in which Wallace Acton’s delectably odious Richard III drapes his twisted body across a leopardskin divan, tugs at his bile-green collar, sips his martini, and plots against his brothers. Set and costume designers Riccardo Hernández and Tom Broecker suggest a cascading historical rush to judgment by mixing 15th- and 21st-century effects, while Howell Binkley seems to have lights in every crevice, casting ominous shadows and a hellish glow on the proceedings.
Out of a cast of 30, about 20 performers make reasonably vivid impressions, among the most pointed being Jarlath Conroy as a slender taper of a bishop who drips hot sarcasm on his opponents, Ted van Griethuysen as a straight-arrow Lord Protector, who would make a pretty good king himself, Helen Carey’s adder-tongued Margaret (deliciously nuanced in ways she wasn’t allowed to be as Lady Macbeth), and Gary Sloan’s oily Suffolk, Margaret’s venomous partner in crime. Also impressive are Edward Gero’s Duke of York, who morphs ominously from callow frat boy to avenging father, and James J. Lawless’ Duke of Exeter, whose gathering dejection as his king makes terrible decisions anchors whole scenes in the evening’s last half-hour. And if Acton’s careening, shifty-eyed, often hilarious Richard doesn’t earn him a run in Richard III at the earliest possible opportunity, there ain’t no justice in the theater.
Remarkably, given the presence of so many juicy villains, Goodwin’s gradually crumbling Henry remains central to the evening. He starts out all adolescent boyishness and then allows a haunted, haunting sadness to take over his eyes. Always, you’re conscious of the boy inside this man—appropriately so, since the play, and indeed the whole series of histories, is about a maturing sense of nation and kingship.
Though the Shakespeare Theatre has been presenting these kingly histories in chronological order, the Bard wrote them out of sequence. When he penned the Henry VI trilogy (his very first plays, sometimes thought to have been written in collaboration with others) he was a neophyte, and you can feel him discovering techniques—funeral orations, battlefield pronouncements, witty wooings—that he would later use to better advantage. All of Henry VI’s ancestors are more eloquent than he, but then, they also know what they want. This Henry just wants to be left alone with his books.
But what that means is that audiences who’ve been following the story chronologically at the Lansburgh now get a chance to reconsider the other works in light of his rougher early writing. Kahn has ensured that his regular patrons will do that, both through casting choices and with staging fillips. For instance, when Suffolk woos French princess Margaret after a military rout, their verbal interplay reflected in the sweeping circles they trace on the stage, it would be hard not to recall the delicate circular logic of the scene in Henry V where Harry wooed French princess Katherine (or rather in which he would woo her once Shakespeare got around to him, since Henry V wasn’t written until eight years later). And if the rectitude and parental exasperation expressed by this play’s Duke of Gloucester toward Henry VI seems to echo that of stern Lancaster toward his princely son in Henry IV, chalk that up at least partially to van Griethuysen’s spirited playing of both parental figures.
Most telling, though, is the self-aware, dethroned-king-waiting-to-die-in-the-Tower scene that’s so remarkably like the one in Richard II. Richard Thomas played it four seasons ago, as this current set of histories got under way, but Goodwin himself also played it in 1988 at the Folger Theater. So just when it seems that the plays are coming full circle in melancholy, you realize Kahn has actually cooked up something far more eerie. For the killer of this king is another Richard, who was to weaken the throne in deliberation as surely as Richard II did in negligence. Their embrace—once and future Richards, united in a purely theatrical lineage—is as rending as it is clever. You won’t want to miss it.
If you’re serious about theater and you’ve never caught Uta Hagen on stage, I suppose you also pretty much have to see Mrs. Klein at the Eisenhower Theater. For reasons that are mostly beyond the actress’s control, you’re going to be disappointed; still, legends are legends, and one misses them at one’s peril.
Hagen’s the genuine article. A revered figure in theater circles, she made her Broadway debut with the Lunts in 1938, played Desdemona to Paul Robeson’s Othello, and perhaps most memorably, created the role of Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She has also, in a decadeslong career at husband Herbert Berghof’s H.B. Studios, taught many of America’s most celebrated stage and screen actors their craft. She probably couldn’t give a bad performance if she tried.
But she can be undermined, and at the KenCen that’s what’s happening. First she’s let down by the author, then by the director, and finally by the auditorium.
Playwright Nicholas Wright’s drama, which looks in on famous child psychologist Melanie Klein (Hagen) a few hours before her son’s funeral, is awash in Freudian psychobabble of a determinedly silly sort. Klein isn’t so much grieving as watching herself grieve, with two younger shrinks—daughter Melitta and daughter-wannabe Paula—on hand to analyze every syllable she utters. As the women circle one another warily, mountains become breasts, sausage gets shredded along with a male colleague’s work, and a glass of white wine tossed in anger elicits the remark, “Who was she when you tried to drown her in symbolic urine?”
Alas, rather than going for comedy, director William Carden takes a running jump at pathos and lands somewhere near soap opera. A former student of Hagen’s (as is Amy Wright, who plays Paula), he has staged the evening as a straightforward hen fight with a second-act nod or two to All About Eve. They’re broad nods, as are all gestures at the Eisenhower, where the auditorium is roughly three times the size of the off-Broadway theater in which this production debuted. You can feel the performers straining to remain conversational while reaching the back row, something only Laila Robins (Melitta) manages very effectively. Pantherlike once her character has realized there’s an interloper in her mother’s house, she’s giving an enormously physical performance. The others must make a virtue of stillness, and while everyone seemed audible from my seat in the 12th row, the line for audio headsets was formidable enough at intermission to suggest that the situation wasn’t as happy further back.
All of which leaves D.C. audiences in the odd position of watching actors’ actor Hagen give an intelligent, carefully considered, technically unimpeachable, and almost entirely uninvolving performance. Pouring milk into a teacup before inquiring as to whether it’s wanted, she’s amusingly peremptory. Delivering haymakers with timing to die for, she’s splendid. But as a mother whose son has just died and whose daughter is so alienated she might as well have died with him, the actress is only fitfully persuasive.
And not, sad to say, when it counts. The playwright requires Klein to erupt in tears half-a-dozen times in the play, and Hagen has found six separate, finely calibrated ways to manage the feat. I’m afraid I never once believed her grief. CP