At Lumina Studio, the Next Generation invokes a story set twenty generations ago
The young prince Edward (Aidan Close) kneels down to be knighted by his father, King Henry VI (Emma Bergman). It is a moment of greatness for Edward, but also of rage and pain, and the three emotions struggle for dominance upon his face. His father, in order to end the ruinous civil war between his followers and the Duke of York, had surrendered Edward’s birthright. Henry agreed that he would reign for the rest of his life; thereafter, the crown will pass to the York line. Further fighting has undone the deal, but Edward remembers what his father was willing to surrender.The ceremony done, Edward rises and speaks. Anger makes his diction crisp, and he means to remind his father of the terrible wrong he did. Henry had referred to Edward’s sword, and the young prince responds “My gracious father, by your kingly leave/I’ll draw it apparent to the crown/And in that quarrel use it to the death.”
It’s an important moment for the actor who plays Edward, and Close nails it. He is angry, but controlled. He is eager for battle, but a little bit scared. He has gone through a rite of passage to manhood, and now stands on the threshold of a bloodier, more massive one. Close is all of those things.
He’s also eight years old.
All right, this is what Lumina is doing: giving a full-scale performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Parts one, two and three – stripped down into one three-and-a-half hour epic. With two casts of fifty-one each. And music. And three sets of costumes – late medieval for part I, Regency for part II, and modern for part III. And video. And not only that, no actor is older than a high school senior. Adapter/director David Minton had better be careful that there is no Brutus in the audience; Minton surely knows what ambition made him do to Caesar.
To do the three Parts of Henry VI is ambition enough. Beginning with the premature death of the great King Henry V and the crowning of his nine-month-old son, Henry VI tracks nearly seventy years in the life of England, through the deadly competition between the infant king’s protector Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (Isaiah Silvers) and the Bishop (later Cardinal) of Winchester (Zoe Waldrop), the loss of the territory Henry V won in France at the hands of Joan of Arc (the fabulous Nora Langer) and the Dauphin Charles (played, to the delight of the audience, as a fatuous oblivious buffoon by Joseph Malionek), the death of fierce, valiant Talbot (Mark Reiner) and his son (Carmen Dominguez-Estrada), the selection of the beautiful shrew Margaret (Sophie Cameron) as Henry’s wife and her seduction by her selector, the Duke of Suffolk (Nick Porter), the rise of Richard Plantegenet (Jeremiah Savage), Duke of York, who has a claim on the throne himself; the rebellion (York-inspired) of Jack Cade (Langer) which briefly overthrew the King; the war of Richard and his sons Edward (Dominguez-Estrada), George (Porter), and Richard (Aziza Afzal, reveling, as Shakespeare intended, in Richard’s evil as Placido Domingo might revel in an aria, or Bryce Harper might revel in a fat pitch over the plate) against Henry and his loyalists; the death of York at the hands of the vengeful queen and the ferocious Clifford (Olivia Solomon); Richard’s slaughter of Clifford and the temporary overthrow of Henry and installation of Edward; the marriage of Edward to Lady Elizabeth Grey (Langer) and the defection of his top Lieutenant Warwick (the excellent Claire Koenig) to Henry’s side when he hears the news; the overthrow of Edward and the reinstallation of Henry, with Warwick’s help; the death of Warwick and Edward’s final triumph; and finally the murder of Henry at the hands of (who else?) Richard Gloucester, who will eventually come to succeed him as Richard III. In addition to this narrative line – as strong and compelling as history itself – there are a dozen or more side plots, grave and hilarious, full of death, sadness, madness, and mirth.
It is a daunting task to put all this on in a single space of time, and to do it with – well, let’s not beat around the bush – kids seems to be an invitation to disaster. But, somehow, they pull it off. Oh, it’s not the Shakespeare Theatre Company or the Folger, but it is plausible and credible. After a while you forget that the cast is younger than the traditional Shakespeare cast, just as you forget that there are women playing men’s roles (a necessary accommodation to the ratio of female to male actors at this age bracket, as well as to the ratio in Shakespeare’s plays). You are watching serious actors, who understand what they are doing on stage. When I acted in high school I was expected to know my lines and where to stand, but these young actors know how to act. (“Shakespeare’s always hard,” Bergman said later, “because you have…to figure out how you’re going to react to other people, figure out what everyone else’s lines mean, because you have to respond.”)
But Henry VI, like all of Shakespeare’s plays, bubbles up from a cauldron of mature emotions – greed, ambition, lust, corrosive envy, cultivated hatred, and that fear which is unique to the battlefield, where violent death in all its ugliness is made plain. How can these young folks, who have experienced (one hopes) only a shadow of these feelings, convincingly bring them to the stage? Director Minton had no doubt they could do it:
“Our oldest group, whom we call ‘The Guild’ has worked on Shakespeare for years and has had little difficulty grasping the emotional nuances of the characters,” he said. “With our younger actors, of course, more time must be spent clarifying the character objectives and motivations. With all our actors, my approach is always to bring it ‘home.’ How are we like the ambitious York, the diva Margaret, the pompous but loyal Gloucester?”
But Minton did more than throw his young actors into a sea of Shakespeare and ask them to swim. He engaged their intellects as well. “The wonderful thing about working with young actors is that they are intensely curious. If you make it relevant to their own lives at all, it is impossible to keep them from being interested in the history of the play!” The Shakespearean scholar John O’Connor, who works with Lumina, illuminated the play and the historical period for the actors, and the result shows.
Take, for example, the central character – Henry himself. He was, historians agree, a dreadful king: weak, indecisive, fearful, foolish, distracted and, at crucial moments, completely deluded. But Shakespeare gives him a certain sweetness (a “very sweet and flawed character,” Minton says) which has an intrinsic charm for those who love peace. He is a pious man, whose first instinct is to reconcile those inclined to quarrel, and who gladly surrenders his own glory in the cause of peace and love (he gives up the French territories of Anjou and Maine in return for Margaret, and the rights of his progeny to the throne in return for peace with York.) To those yet unschooled in the complexity of life, he might seem appealing, even heroic. Not to these actors:
“I think the thing about Henry is that he is a man only, really, in label,” Bergman says, explaining how she as a young woman surmounted the challenge of playing the King. “He’s sort of this weak, almost effeminate, king…he’s very hopeful and he only wants like everyone to be peaceful and connected. So I think that he doesn’t have to be played as a strong, very typical man.”
Jeremiah Savage, who plays Henry’s rival York, recognizes the flaws in both his character and Henry. “I think I’ve learned that to be a leader it takes more than being a nice person. As you can see by Henry the sixth. Henry the sixth is a…nice person but he just doesn’t have any power behind what he wants…And I think that to be a good leader you both have to be a good nice person [and] have that drive. Because York has that drive, but he’s less of a good person, so that doesn’t work. You have to have both. Together.”
These actors also understand that no person, no matter how horrible, sees himself as a villain, and so work vigorously to celebrate their characters’ strength on stage.
“Richard [is] very honest with himself,” says Afzal, who plays one of the most famously evil characters in all of Shakespeare. “He’s not doing anything for anyone else; he’s doing it for himself….I found his energy admirable, I found his drive to get something fun to portray.” Sophie Cameron, playing the sharp-tongued Queen Margaret, who was despised as a meddler in her own time, found her character’s humanness appealing: “She really did live at one point and…she had troubles and trials, and all these things were constantly banging against her…at some point she just said, I’ve had enough of it. I just kept reminding myself that this was a real person who lived a long time feeling like everything had been taken away from her that it was her right to have. And so you did talk of the reality, not make it some fake cartoon villain.” And Sam Felsenthal, who played the prickly Duke of Somerset, found that the flip side of his character’s prickliness was honor: “Everyone else with him is after the crowd, in one way or the other. Except for Somerset. Somerset does not have any desire to be king. He is loyal, along with all those other things that are not as likeable.”
The actors’ hard work (they have been in rehearsal since January) pays off in savvy performances. Even the very young actors turn in credible work (along with Close, Cole Sebastian does a wonderful job as a whistleblower obliged to prove his charge in mortal combat with the accused), and the older actors give a wonderful specificity to their characters. Bergman gives Henry a sort of Woody Allen energy – in appearance and movement only; there’s no attempt at mimicry in this play. Cameron’s Margaret is full of self-aware sensuality; her beauty is her weapon, and she delights in using it. Koenig as Warwick is particularly adept at crossing the gender barrier; wearing a costume goatee and with her hair swept up in a ponytail, she seems like some yuppie avenger, three years out of grad school and ready to stake his claim upon the world. Savage’s Richard seems almost helpless in the grip of the engine of his ambition, and Afzal, as Richard’s son and namesake, is one step beyond, remorseless as a cobra.
I am told the other cast is just as good.
This is a labor of love for the Lumina adults – love of the children, of course, but also love of the art, which they present with enormous care and professionalism. I cannot say enough about Wendy Eck’s costumes, which are as breathtakingly ambitious in scope as the project itself, and are also flawless. It is worth the price of admission to see these costumes on human bodies; to see them on human bodies doing Shakespeare so well is an additional bonus.
The show has four music directors; Dr. Tina Chancey, who supplies the Renaissance music in Act I; Karen Ashbrook and Paul Oorts, who put together the classical music in Act II, and Wendy Lanxner, who does the rock in Part III. I liked all their work, especially that of Lanxner, who invented a beautiful song in which Henry, bewildered and bereaved by all the slaughter around him, envied the workingman who kissed his family goodbye every morning before boarding the bus. (It replaced part of a Shakespearean speech in which Henry envied the life of a Shepherd).
Minton, who, in addition to directing the two casts, also reduced eight hours of theater by more than half, has done an enormous amount of work himself. “It was critical that the audience followed a narrative that spoke to the main theme I was interested in: the persistence of violence and political machinations through history,” Minton said. But “the verse and language are bedrock. I could have cut more of Richard[‘s] long monologue at the end of Part 3, for example, but his speech is a complete whole.” Instead, many of the less successful scenes (I am thinking, for example, of a hokey vignette in which a son discovers that he has killed his father in battle, and then a father discovers he has killed his son) were deleted.
In acknowledging the love which undergirds this production, we must in honesty acknowledge that a three-and-a-half hour production of Henry VI done by young people is not for everyone. It is not, for example, for people who go to theater solely to be entertained – a significant, and much-coveted, segment of the theatergoing population. It is, however, very much for those who love theater, who celebrate its growth, and who rejoice in its renewal in a new generation, some of whom will grace our stages in years to come, and some of whom will grace our audience, knowledgably and with appreciation of the art.
As we get ready to celebrate the memory of Gary Lee Maker with an award to an audience member who advances the cause of theater, it is impossible not to note that this is the sort of event which would have brought joy to his heart, just as it might bring joy to yours.
The Lumina Studio production of HenryVI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 closes May 22nd, 2011. The Blue Cast we reviewed her. Remaining performances: May 21st 12:00PM (GREEN) and 5:00PM (BLUE) and May 22nd 12:00PM (GREEN) and 5:00PM (BLUE)