Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2002.

I had occasion to speak to one of my high school English teachers last weekend, and I upbraided her for failing to introduce me to Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. I remember distinctly taking a semester-long course on Shakespeare’s history plays in my junior or senior year of high school during which we read Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III. Why was it considered okay to omit the huge chunk of dramatic literature and English history encompassed in the three parts of Henry VI?

Do not allow this to happen to you or the young people in your life. Pack everyone into the car right now and go to see the two 90-minute plays that Jenna Ware has created and directed from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, parts one, two, and three. Sitting through Shakespeare’s trilogy would take at least nine hours and involve a considerably larger investment in tickets, and Ware and the students at Shakespeare & Company’s Summer Performance Institute do a bang-up job of making their three-hour version exciting and entertaining.

Click the following link to see my review of Part 1. This past Thursday Brandon and I took our dorky sun hats, sunblock, and bottled water down to the meadow behind the Founders’ Theatre once again and saw the Henry VI Chronicles, Part 2. The weather was even better than when we attended Part 1 and we enjoyed reliving the amazing sight of a band of actors appearing on this outdoor stage in this beautiful meadow and entertaining us.

We both agreed that Part 2 was even more exciting and entertaining than Part 1, and yet there is even more murder, rebellion, war, and general mayhem in the second part. Everyone who didn’t die in Part 1 gets it in Part 2. It’s a good thing all these kings and king wanna-bes were so good at reproducing. Generation after generation of Yorkists and Lancastrians attained adulthood only to be as cheerfully stabbed and beheaded as their forefathers. Then just when you think the War of the Roses will never end, the man who will become Richard III kills Henry VI and it is on to the next play. (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”)

Sarah Hankins is back as the ambitious and bloody Queen Margaret, this time adamant that her wimp of a husband Henry VI will not prevent their son from ascending the throne. Hankins is beautiful and fierce in equal measure. I felt sorry for her having to fight the entire War of the Roses in a dress when everyone else got to wear slacks, but it didn’t seem to slow her down a bit.

Birgit Huppuch takes over the role of Henry VI from Susan Hyon who played the younger king in Part 1, and I liked her better. Henry VI was a bookish and a religious man, ill-suited for the monarchy in an age that valued a warlike temperament and success on the battlefield. In contrast to his father’s military triumphs, Henry VI was a grave disappointment as a king. I quote from my favorite childhood books Kings and Queens by Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon:

Considering Henry
The Sixth wasn’t strong,
It’s very surprising
He lasted so long;
At the age of nine months
He came into his own,
And for thirty-nine years
Kept his seat on the throne.

Even while Lancastrian Henry VI was alive, Yorkist Edward IV sat on the throne of England. I especially liked some of the scenes Huppuch had during that time when Henry VI was simultaneously king and not king. Here are some of Shakespeare’s most affecting soliloquies on the life of a monarch, and Huppuch delivers them with deep feeling.

Darren H. Gardner as the commoner rebel Jack Cade seemed to be having a rousing good time, as do almost the entire cast who play common folks swept up in Cade’s party with Monty Python-esque humor. Cade’s final battle with a valiant, elderly gardener named Iden (Elizabeth Raetz) -- sword vs hedge clippers -- was simultaneously hilarious and a let-down as one feared the fun the character of Cade brought to the early moments of Part 2 were at an end. It turned out that Cade was at an end but the fun was just starting.

Katie Atkinson’s eyes burned with the fire of mad ambition as the crookback Richard, later the Duke of Gloucester and soon to be King Richard III. Since we in the audience know what is to come, there is great pleasure in watching Atkinson’s Richard grow in ruthless determination as the crown gets closer and closer to his murderous grasp.

The astoundingly flexible and attractive costumes are by Lisa Jahn with assistance from Susan Thomas. With sixteen actors playing at least three times as many roles, the costumes need to function as a kind of historical shorthand for who is on what side, and they work.

Some energetic drumming is supplied for battle scenes, and there are PLENTY of those, by John C. Bailey, Natalie A. Gatreaux, Sean Miller, Lauryn E. Sasso, Michelle Silver, and Huppuch. Brandon and I sat on the side, almost on the stage, and every now and then one of those drummers would come and thump away right behind us, making it nearly impossible to hear any lines, but as long as we kept our eyes on who was winning and who was getting slaughtered, we were okay.

Henry VI Chronicles, Part II 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

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