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'Henry VI': Coming Up Roses

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 25, 1996; Page B01

All the sharks have pretty teeth in the production of "Henry VI" that opened last night at the Shakespeare Theatre. The heroic Henry V, whom Shakespeare Theatre audiences may remember from Michael Kahn's stunning production last season, is dead. The resulting power vacuum sucks a variety of characters to their doom and the country into the 15th-century civil conflict known as the Wars of the Roses. The only character without a feral grin is Henry VI himself (Philip Goodwin), who has the misfortune to be the one decent man in this nest of bloodthirsty goblins.

Goodwin gives a performance of fierce moral power and beauty as the gentle but by no means weak king who is constitutionally incapable of understanding why anyone should choose strife instead of peace. Bookish, religious, uninterested in power, he is shoved aside, roughed up and eventually destroyed by the thugs vying for his throne. These include his wife, Margaret (a savage, heroic performance by Helen Carey); her lover, the Earl of Suffolk (Gary Sloan); the sly Bishop of Winchester (Jarlath Conroy); the snotty Duke of Somerset (Andrew Long); plus the violent, ambitious Duke of York (Edward Gero) and his three sons: Edward (C.J. Wilson), George (Ryan Artzberger) and little hunchbacked Richard (Wallace Acton), who has imperial ambitions of his own.

Kahn has taken three plays ("Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3") comprising roughly 14 hours of playing time and rendered them into one fast-moving drama that runs a little less than four hours. He has edited mercilessly. You'd never know, for example, that the courageous soldier Talbot (Ralph Cosham) is the main character in the uncut "Henry VI, Part 1." Here he's slain almost as soon as he's introduced. The play's scabrous portrait of Joan of Arc (Opal Alladin), who is presented as a whore and a witch, just flashes by us. I'm not sure a modern American audience actually wants any more of these plays than we get here, but the relentless cutting does make the evening leap along awfully fast at first. The enmity between Duke Humphrey (Ted van Griethuysen) and the bishop turns vicious with startling suddenness, as does the fallout between the dukes of York and Somerset. Characters dash on and announce themselves, and just as you're settling down to spend some time with them they die, usually unpleasantly. Things are never dull, but they're sometimes bewildering.

The first part of the evening is given weight and direction by van Griethuysen as Humphrey, the maligned Lord Protector. With easy authority, the actor takes over the proceedings and becomes the center of gravity around which the chaotic action whirls. Humphrey is vain and ambitious, but not evil -- van Griethuysen makes his fall from power matter to us, and he paves the way for Goodwin's Henry to take over the drama. The king has been mostly an onlooker to these early events. Now, as the story moves on, he grows in dramatic stature, and the play grows with him.

Goodwin's ascetic face is the primary image in the production; it seems to hover over all the bloody goings-on, a mask of suffering and judgment. Like Lear, his Henry looks into the hell of human nature -- the shocking vision purifies him and gives him an otherworldly acceptance. Just before his death, in prison, he has returned to his studies -- among other things he has perfected something he worked on as a boy, a geometrically precise paper airplane, delicate and quixotically useless. He looks up from this heartbreaking toy to see that hunchbacked Richard, with his death's-head smile, has come to call on him.

Granting that Richard-soon-to-be-the-Third is a hard part to ruin, Acton is still marvelous. All three of York's sons are well-characterized. Wilson (who is also funny in a smaller role) is a swaggering, spoiled Edward, and Artzberger makes George a bit of a half-wit. At first Acton's Richard seems stereotypically psychopathic -- people keep having to pull him away from folks he wants to kill -- but in his big soliloquy, swearing to hack his way to the throne, he's ravishing, stripping his deformed body and soul bare in front of us and limping down the theater aisle to his malignant destiny.

Gero has some of the bullying power he brought to that other usurper, Bolingbroke (in "Richard II"); he's a glowering, greedy creature. He more than meets his match in Carey, whose Margaret lives up to the characterization "she-wolf." Craig Wallace hams it up enjoyably as the rebel Jack Cade; Kate Skinner is a minx, first as Duke Humphrey's wife, who dabbles in sorcery, and later as the calculating widow Elizabeth, who wins Edward's heart; Emery Battis makes a strong impression in the tiny role of Lord Clifford, and Michael Solomon is good as his reckless, emotional son. Brett Porter is authoritative as the Earl of Warwick, who plays on whichever side suits him best, though the script-cutting undermines his description as "the kingmaker."

As always in Kahn's productions, the design is impressively of a piece, from Riccardo Hernandez's stark set to Tom Broecker's somber costumes to Adam Wernick's martial score. Rick Sordelet practically deserves an assistant director credit for his fights, which range from the comic to the balletically violent. Is this as stirring and overwhelming an evening as Kahn's "Henry V"? Is it as emotionally rich as his "Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2"? Not really, no. (The writing isn't there, for one thing.) But it's still great theater.

Henry VI, by William Shakespeare.
Directed and adapted by Michael Kahn. Assistant director, Ethan McSweeny. Vocal consultant, Ralph Zito.
With David Sabin, Edward Baird Wilford, Dylan McCullough, Jeff Gardner, Andrew Thayer, Mark Heimann, Michael Barry, James J. Lawless, Seth Cohen, Nicholas Jackson, Clark Scott Carmichael, Allen Gilmore.
At the Shakespeare Theatre through Nov. 3. Call 202-393-2700.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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