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Hamlet Isn't Dead Breathes New Life into Shakespeare with Henry VI

Our review of Shakespeare’s early trilogy featuring exclusive quotes from director Robin Rightmyer.

Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 are some of the least performed and least well known of Shakespeare's works. They are a trilogy of history plays, directly preceding and leading up to the events in the more celebrated Richard III. But what they lack in fame, these plays make up for with epic battles, thrillingly violent characters and a more intriguing look at the English War of the Roses than you'll find in any history book.

Hamlet Isn't Dead, a new NYC theater company, has taken on the task of performing all three of these plays (in streamlined but still full-length form) at once, rotating through the scripts on subsequent nights as well as a few "marathon" Saturdays where the cast does all three shows in a single day. It's a monumental task, and we were able to get some insights from Henry VI director Robin Rightmyer on how this series of performances began.

Exclusive Content with the Director

Hamlet Isn't Dead's mission statement is to perform the complete works of William Shakespeare in the order they were written, and the Henry trilogy forms episodes three through five of that saga. How did such a bold challenge come to be?

Most of the founding company are avid Shakespeare fans, to start. "In our search for purpose," Rightmyer says, "we were drawn to the idea that even Shakespeare was once a young, struggling artist. As we grow, we remember his growth, and this gives focus both to ourselves and our ever-growing audience."

While their production may be small and low-budget, it's hard to imagine these polished performers as struggling artists. And while the small cast of just thirteen actors juggle to cover the over 50 roles in the full trilogy, they wouldn't have it any other way. "I love repertory theatre and small casts," says the director. "It gives each actor the ability to play a wide variety and help tell a story together. There's nothing more irritating to me than having actors as 'window dressing.'"

This company isn't just taking on the challenge of a small cast. They also deal directly with the complicated gender roles in Shakespeare and in medieval England in general. The plays already feature bloodthirsty warriors Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret and social climber Lady Grey, but many other roles, including that of the Queen's lover the Duke of Suffolk, have been made into women.

"I knew that I was setting out to talk about women's issues in a patriarchy, and thus was looking for more," Rightmyer told us. "Making Suffolk a woman was a perfect fit; it allowed in another level of taboo in society--that of a homosexual relationship--while providing yet another strong female character. While our culture is perhaps the most accepting of such a relationship in history, there is room for growth. To be part of that growth and challenge is extremely gratifying and one of the most important jobs of theater."

This feminist stance is also emphasized in the company's relationship with the WOW Cafe Theatre, traditionally a women's and transgender theater space in New York, where the plays are being performed. Henry VI is "all about strong women," and the partnership between the two organizations is thus "a perfect fit."

Henry VI Part 1

Henry VI Part 1, like many of Shakespeare's histories, begins with a war with France, and because of the machinations of Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) and Louis Dauphin (the King), things are not going too well for England. Meanwhile, Richard Plantagenet seeks to overcome the shame of his father's treason and regain the dukedom of York--and ultimately the throne, which belonged to his family just a few generations ago.

It's a play in which fortunes can change drastically, and even the winner who appears most certain can be seen fleeing from their own castle a few scenes later. The cast plays with this turbulence well, and every character feels like a major player, with messengers holding their own against kings. Standout performances include Jessica Cermak as the passionate and wily Joan, Jonathan Minton's calculating Richard Duke of York and Bradley Sumner as the epic warrior Sir John Talbot.

The complex relationship between Joan and the Dauphin (Nick Bosanko), fraught with sexual tension and an overwhelming desire to defeat the English, is the highlight of the play. Opposing royal King Henry himself is a curiously weak presence whose crown doesn't even fit him, but that is true to the character as written.

There is no real attempt at a set beyond a few acting blocks, which given the number of scenes in locations as diverse as the English throne room and a dozen different French battlefields was the right choice. The production features modern costumes, with leather jackets standing in for armor and subtle reds and whites indicating allegiances to each side of the civil war that continue throughout the trilogy. The other indicator of the White Roses and the Red, handkerchiefs that are coveted, worn proudly or thrown away in disgust, are an effective device in keeping track of what would otherwise be an overwhelming number of characters and titles.

There is a large amount of stage combat in this play, as we are in the middle of a war, and the actors make a good attempt; longer swords might have served them better than the daggers they carry with them throughout the play, however. And as useful as the French and British accents lower class characters had to identify their difference in this world of royals, they are distracting in an otherwise accent-less world.

For a play that's almost entirely about war, Henry VI Part 1 is a valiant effort. It's also a play that really feels like the first piece of a trilogy, planting the seeds of future conflicts that lead you directly into the next piece.

Henry VI Part 2

Henry VI Part 2 is the meat of the War of the Roses, from the scheming that brings down Richard Duke of York's enemies to his ultimate declaration of his right to the throne. It poses the two most powerful figures in the kingdom against one another in a treacherous conflict--Richard and not the king, but the newly married Queen Margaret.

The highlight of this piece is watching Margaret grow from the timid princess we met at the end of Part 1 into a fierce, armored defender of her kingdom, and Sophia Blum performs that growth with perfection. The Duchess of Suffolk, meanwhile, is a very different sort of character, quietly confident where Margaret is easily provoked to anger. Whether the autonomy Suffolk is given by the rest of the court detracts from Margaret's struggles to be taken seriously as a woman or complements them is debatable, but Sara Group performs the fascinatingly complex character, who marries the love of her life to her king to keep her as close as she can, with intelligence and grace.

Other players in this game of thrones also start to make their presence known. Richard's right hand man the Duke of Warwick (Kevin Percival) is a strong, consistent presence in the play, while King Henry (Morgan Hooper) becomes a more major player, sympathetic even as his overly emotional nature frustrates his queen and allies.

The plot arc involving Eleanor and Gloucester the Lord Protector is glossed over a little too quickly to get the full impact, but it does quite clearly demonstrate how easily a single accusation of betrayal can ruin a life in this world. The stakes are incredibly high in this play, and by this point you are so immersed in the piece that the language is not overwhelming at all. The more selective use of stage combat in this piece was likewise more convincing and entertaining, the court a more engrossing setting than the battlefield.

Henry VI Part 3

There are two kings in England now, and the stakes are changing so rapidly that you can never tell which side is going to win out. With everyone from Richard's sons to his strongest ally changing sides at any moment, it's impossible to know who to root for--especially when any claim to the throne is only two generations old anyway. But that's the thrill of the piece.

By this point in the trilogy, the double casting starts to link characters in the saga in odd thematic ways. Sara Group, who was once the Queen's lover, is now her child and King Henry's heir Prince Edward, while Richard's eternal rival the Duke of Somerset (Logan Keeler) is now his son and heir. If there was any way to show how connected all of these characters' fates are to one another, this is it.

Still, Keeler's Edward of York is fascinating, the charismatic tyrant that Henry could never be, while Jara Jones as Richard, York's son provides hints of the future Richard III's madness in the most subtle of manners. The scene in which the younger Richard confronts Henry in his Tower of London prison is one of the most intriguing moments of the play, second only to Queen Margaret and the elder Richard's final confrontation. At that point, Blum's Margaret reaches her peak and becomes legitimately terrifying.

Part 3 contains some of the most intricate and successful battle scenes of the saga, as well as some of the best instances of physical comedy in the comic relief scenes. And as the audience seating arrangement has shifted in each installment of the plays from three sides to two opposing to finally with the audience on all four sides, it becomes clear just how much the world of Henry VI's court is closing in on all of them.

"By the end of the trilogy, the actors and the audience together have a huge wealth of background connection," director Robin Rightmyer tells us. "The stakes are high, the characters have all of their flaws revealed and there is a sense of togetherness brought about by shared exertion. There is nothing more gratifying to me than the last act of Part 3--tumultuous fights and banner-waving speeches land in a way that cannot be fully understood without the full arc of the story."

In some ways, the trilogy of plays still doesn't feel quite complete, as the group of histories leads directly into Richard III. Still, with every actor having a deep, engaging role in the piece and the huge variety of characters and plots it contains, Henry VI is a complex and very entertaining piece which Hamlet Isn't Dead performs beautifully. We can't wait until they take on Titus Andronicus in October, and before long Richard III will be back on the bill as well.

Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 plays at the WOW Cafe Theater for two more iterations of the cycle: Wednesday-Friday September 17-19 at 7:30pm, or the final marathon day on Saturday the 20th at 2pm, 4:30pm and 8pm. For more information, check out their website.

ETA: And by request of the creative team at Hamlet Isn't Dead, who wanted to make sure their fabulous production crew gets credited for their work, here is the rest of the team:

Assistant Director: Dayle Towarnicky Stage Manager: Rosie Kolbo Lighting Designer: Lydia Banks Fight Choreographer: David Andrew Laws Resident Composer: Diana Hill

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