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Henry VI — Part I: Foreign Wars and Part II: Civil Strife

"Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour's hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness' land."

henry 1
(L–R) David Huynh (Lord), Anna Ishida (Duke of Somerset), Mia Katigbak (Duke of Gloucester), Michelangelo Hyeon (Lord), Vanessa Kai (Earl of Warwick) and John D. Haggerty (Lord Talbot) in Part 1: Foreign Wars (Photo: William P. Steele)
Jon Norman Schneider as Henry VI in Part 2: Civil Strife (Photo: William P. Steele)
Long before the red state/blue state divide, a great civil conflict arose from the divide between red roses and white roses. The former was a symbol of England's reigning House of Lancaster, the latter of the insurgent House of York, and the resulting war would go on to eventually destroy the male lines of both.

The horrors of the war, as Shakespeare tells it in his Henry VI trilogy, trace back to a simple disagreement in a rose garden. Those who agreed with the Duke of Somerset took a red rose; Duke of York, a white one. In a seemingly unremarkable moment, as men engage in an intellectual disagreement surrounded by natural beauty, the civic discourse slightly erodes. Nobody can see how close they are to the edge of a cliff, or realize that they've opened Pandora's Box, unleashing evil that will go on to mete out bloody consequences.

This is one moment that resonates with chilling relevance in the National Asian American Theater Company's new production of Henry VI, adapted and directed by Stephen Brown-Fried. The ambitious staging combines Shakespeare's three parts into two and, in keeping with the trend of recent double-header productions, offers ticketing options to marathon all six hours (with a dinner break) or to space the two apart.

The first segment, Foreign Wars, focuses on how Henry's premature ascension to the throne, weak leadership, and manipulation by those around him contributed to England's loss of power in France. As this happens, dissension creeps in—"a viperous worm / that gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth," as Henry (Jon Norman Schneider) calls it—thereby packing the powder keg that explodes into violence in part two, Civil Strife.

Comparisons between Shakespeare's fifteenth-century England and the modern geopolitical state of affairs shouldn't be overstated. (It's worth keeping in mind the clear difference between civil dissent in the context of royal power struggles and the recent surge of polarization caused by moral outrages perpetrated by the government.) But the work makes clear how easily the public can be manipulated by power-hungry politicians and how the good of the state is likely to be conflated with the personal gain of those running it. The political specifics create a very different context, but Shakespeare's observations about human nature are broadly applicable.

Such universality is heightened here by the use of an ensemble made up entirely of Asian actors, in many cases cast gender-blind. It is part of NAATCO's signature style to stage classic works by non-Asian playwrights using Asian actors but without content adjustments based on the heritage of the performers. Physical appearances and accents don't define roles, language does. So, while this is a Henry VI executed by Asian performers, it is not an "Asian Henry VI."

The costumes (by Nicole Slaven) and stage design (by Kimie Nishikawa), for example, aren't intended to conjure any particular place, time, or culture, but rather focus on utility and fragility. Bits of paper on the stage are tidily piled at the start but are naturally disturbed and strewn about as the action of the play proceeds. The battle gear somehow evokes both the structured rigidity of armor and the flimsiness of a plastic bag; for all the status and power that it exudes, anyone wearing it is easily dispensed.

That turns out to be a common fate: in the sixteen-person cast, all but two actors play at least one character who meets an untimely demise, and some more than one. The cycle has a video game–like mania to it—die, respawn as a new avatar, and die again.

The performers themselves do a commendable job differentiating the ninety or so characters who populate the world, and it's enjoyable to see how the freedom afforded by the production's approach to casting plays out. By the saga's end, the performers seem such natural fits for their roles that it's hard to believe that many might never be considered for these parts to begin with in most productions.

The fine ensemble is headed by Schneider, offering a sensitive portrait of a ruler with no business ruling. Initially, his Henry emits an aura that is smug and childish, but the character grows up before our eyes, evolving to possess a keen awareness of the mayhem erupting around him and of his own failings that leave him powerless to stop it.

The fiery rivalry between the Duke of Gloucester (NAATCO artistic director Mia Katigbak) and the Bishop of Winchester (Wai Ching Ho) also makes for compelling watching in Part 1. In Part 2, the escalating tension between Somerset (Anna Ishida) and York (Rajesh Bose) pays similar dramatic dividends.

Some roles and moments, meanwhile, take an unexpectedly comedic tone, probing the absurdity of the widespread scheming and betrayal that occurs throughout the plays—as when the Earl of Warwick (Vanessa Kai) throws away a long-held allegiance after being embarrassed by King Edward IV (David Shih). Mahira Kakkar depicts Queen Margaret's shocking viciousness while not shying away from the overstated nature of her contempt for her husband and her brutal approach to vengeance.

The production is sprawling, and at moments drops into sluggishness (the preview I attended also seemed to have a few moments where slow entrances or flubbed dialogue caused brief hiccups). But at its best, the breadth of the universe and ambition of the storytelling becomes truly dizzying.

The potential energy of the conflict is amplified by the intimacy of the A.R.T. Mezzanine Theatre, configured to place the rectangular stage in the middle with the audience along the two long sides. The close quarters don't always serve the carefully choreographed movement well—up close, it can be distracting to see how much effort a performer needs to put into moving in slow motion, for example—but they do provide an optimal environment for the plays' many soliloquies.

In these and in the many battle scenes, Brown-Fried's staging strategically embraces echoes and redundancy. When the work repeats itself, with yet another member of the court explaining their ulterior motives, or in another deadly confrontation between royals, Brown-Fried is not indulging Shakespeare's excesses. Instead, he stages such moments in a way that emphasizes how wrong breeds wrong and how conflict becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

While no direct connections are drawn between Henry's world and our own, it's impossible to escape the provocation of this last point. At a moment of weakening civic discourse and a political race to the bottom, where might this cycle lead us? NAATCO's Henry VI demands a lot of your time and your attention, but for those willing to put in the effort, the impressively acted and thoughtfully enlightening production proves to be an striking new take on this historical classic.

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Henry VI—Part 1: Foreign Wars and Part 2: Civil Strife
by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Stephen Brown-Fried
Cast: Rajesh Bose, Ron Domingo, John D. Haggerty, Wai Ching Ho, David Huynh, Michelangelo Hyeon, Anna Ishida, Paul Juhn, Vanessa Kai, Mahira Kakkar, Mia Katigbak, Jon Norman Schneider, James Seol, David Shih, Sophia Skiles, and Kim Wong
Scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa
Costume design by Nicole Slaven
Lighting design by Reza Behjat
Sound design by Toby Algya
Prop design by Brittany Coyne
Movement direction by Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin
Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard
Running Time: Part 1 runs 3 hours and Part 2 runs 2 hours and 45 minutes, both with one ten minute intermission
Presented by NAATCO at the Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street at Tenth Avenue
From 8/11/18; opening 8/21/18 (Part 1) and 8/22/18 (Part 2); closing 9/08/18.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn based on 8/19/18 performances

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