Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2002.
My son Brandon and I walked down into the meadow behind the Founders’ Theatre on an impossibly beautiful Berkshire summer day and found that that “thing” out there was a magical and welcoming outdoor theatre. We could sit on beach chairs in the “pit” or on padded benches around the perimeter. We chose the beach chairs and settled in with our sun block and water bottles. I took off my shoes.
And then a stalwart band of players came along and put on a wonderful show just for us. Well, it felt like it was just for use because we were in the front row but we were not actually alone. A small group of other people who seemed equally dazed to find themselves thus entertained out in the sunny meadow at 5 p.m. sat with us.
On the stage the Wars of the Roses started up. King Henry V was dead and his heir, King Henry VI, was a mere child, instructed and manipulated by his great-uncle the Bishop of Winchester and his uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Protector of the Realm. The program told us that 30 years of actual history was unfolding before us in 90 minutes. Henry VI grew up, took a wife (or was he taken by her?), and tried to learn to be a king, but he had none of his father’s flair for leadership. The uncles quarreled, the French lands were lost, various ambitious folk were bribed and blackmailed then banished and beheaded.
All of this was performed with great passion and I found myself both able to follow the history and able to enjoy the plot. Great credit for this must go to Jenna Ware, who both adapted this afternoon’s entertainment from Shakespeare’s plays King Henry VI, Part I and King Henry VI, Part II, and directed the proceedings. The performers, all members of Shakespeare & Company’s 2002 Summer Performance Institute, are obviously a talented and dedicated bunch. They applied themselves to the rigors of their multiple roles with vigor, and they helped construct the outdoor performance space, known as the Rose Footprint Theatre. I am sure that they are proud of being the inaugural group to perform in the space, and that pride and excitement went a long way towards creating the very special experience Brandon and I had attending the show.
Henry VI Parts I, II, & III were among Shakespeare’s first plays to be produced, but because the trilogy runs a good nine hours and is not his finest writing, they are rarely performed. It was a bold and smart decision of Shakespeare & Company to open their Rose Footprint space with these two 90 minute adaptations of the plays (Ware and the Summer Performance Institute students have yet to unveil the Henry VI Chronicles, Part II, which will open and run in repertory with Part I beginning on July 25). There is something about the space, the place, the setting which make it a successful time warp. I was not fooled into thinking that I was back in 1593, but I did feel that I was somewhere new, yet old, and special, sharing a unique experience with my son.
There is much more hoopla and publicity surrounding Shakespeare & Company’s other plays at the Founders’ and Spring Lawn Theatres. The Henry VI Chronicles have been sort of tucked in to the schedule in odd places – after all, as an outdoor show rain cancels and daylight is essential – but I would encourage you to be diligent and find a day and time that you and your family can take your water bottles and sun block and wait for those players to come along to that magic meadow. You will feel educated and entertained.
Henry VI Chronicles, Part I runs through September 1 at Shakespeare & Company’s outdoor Rose Footprint Theatre on Kemble Street in Lenox. The shows run ninety minutes with no intermission. This is Shakespearean history at its most cheerfully bloody and small children will be confused and/or frightened. Call the box office at 413-637-3353 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002