Condensed 'Henry VI' has plenty of fight left in it

September 26, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

What do you get when you compress three of Shakespeare's history plays -- total running time, more than a half day; a couple hundred characters; and a time span of nearly 50 years -- into a single four-hour production?

At Washington's Shakespeare Theatre under Michael Kahn's direction, you get "Henry VI" -- an action-packed humdinger of a 15th-century soap opera. Allegiances shift, romances bloom and go sour, plots are foiled by counterplots and, always, the body count rises.

Kahn showed a knack for abridging Shakespeare when he combined "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2" into a single evening in 1994. In "Henry VI" he goes one step further, but with similar effectiveness.

Hardly ever produced, "Henry VI" is the missing link between Shakespeare's popular "Henry V" and "Richard III." By condensing this link into a single production, Kahn gives audiences a rare chance to see not only the unrest that the house of Lancaster's ascendancy led to, but also the conditions that nourished the nefarious scion of the house of York, Richard III (Wallace Acton).

With more bloodshed than a Schwarzenegger movie, Kahn's abridged "Henry VI" grabs your attention and never lets go. But it does something else as well. Cramming so much plot into so little space could conceivably crowd out character development. And indeed, psychological depth -- like polished poetry -- isn't the strong point of these earliest Shakespeare plays.

But Kahn's streamlined production is far more than a Classics Illustrated version of "Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3." His cast fleshes out the characters and makes the principal players in the Wars of the Roses as real as modern-day, power-hungry politicians.

Philip Goodwin's Henry VI is the prime example -- though he is the antithesis of power hungry. Kahn introduces Goodwin by placing him at the edge of the stage, facing the audience, when the boy Henry -- played with assurance by Michael Barry -- is crowned. It's a neat segue to a character who, even when grown, seems too young and innocent to rule.

As a politician, Goodwin's mild-mannered, rosary-clutching Henry is the ultimate appeaser. When his feuding uncles -- Ted van Griethuysen's noble Humphrey and Jarlath Conroy's scheming Bishop of Winchester -- squabble, Barry's young Henry just wants them to get along.

This admirable but unrealistic point of view backfires irreparably when Goodwin's Henry disinherits his own son in acknowledgment of Richard Plantagenet's more lawful claim to the throne -- an act that sends Henry's queen, Margaret, to the battlefield herself.

The women in "Henry VI" are a tough bunch, from Joan of Arc (Opal Alladin), who is depicted as a lying witch, to Humphrey's social-climbing, sorcery-subscribing wife (Kate Skinner). But Helen Carey's indomitable Margaret is toughest of all -- the polar opposite of her sweet, pacifist husband and a precursor of Lady Macbeth, whom Carey played here last season.

In the past, Kahn has often imported stars, but this time he relies on the corps of actors he has assembled over the years. Not only is it a joy to see the interaction between the theater's leading regulars -- particularly between Goodwin's Henry and his chief rival, Edward Gero's spirited Richard Plantagenet -- but the sense of ensemble Kahn has created is a major factor in the success of the production, which relies heavily on multiple casting.

The exigencies of streamlining mean textual elements are at times shortchanged and scenic imagery overstated, especially the red, white and black color scheme of designer Riccardo Hernandez's set, and the storm-trooper images at the end. Some characters, such as Brett Porter's fickle Earl of Warwick, nearly get lost in the shuffle. And the lovely Temple Garden scene Shakespeare invented, in which the characters choose allegiances by plucking a white or a red rose, zips by almost too fast to be appreciated.

Still, overall, "Henry VI" is a gutsy victory. I don't know how many people could sit through all three parts of "Henry VI"; the Shakespeare Theatre's version will have you glued to your seat.

'Henry VI'

Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., N.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 1: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and noon Oct. 30; through Nov. 3

Tickets: $13.50-$49.50

Call: (202) 393-2700

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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