Henry VI, part one; directed by Henry Woronicz for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah, 8 Aug. 2018.
Reviewed by David W. Hartwig
As part of its effort to “complete the canon,” which began in 2011, the Utah Shakespeare Festival began the Wars of the Roses cycle this season with Henry VI, part one. The production was fast-paced (running-time of just over two hours) and exciting, with strong performances from several of the principal actors, and a design strategy that was both aesthetically pleasing and occasionally jarring for the audience.
Apollo Mark Weaver’s set design effectively called to mind the late-medieval setting of the play. The Engelstad Theatre’s stage (an open-air, pseudo-Elizabethan reconstruction) was adorned with dark wood panels. The vast stage had a small raised platform at its center, which was mechanized to move back into the discovery space under the balcony at certain points. Hanging from the rear wall of the balcony was a larger-than-life portrait of Henry V, whose death overshadowed the production effectively, and a tattered royal banner. Lauren T. Roark’s costume design complemented the set with its mix of medieval armor and courtly attire.
Despite the elegiac tone of the opening scene, the actors maintained a break-neck pace. While appreciated by this reviewer, those in the audience who were unfamiliar with the play may have found it difficult to follow.
At the first “alarum” in 1.2, the production’s tone shifted drastically. The city walls of Orleans were signified by the balcony and enclosed discovery space. When the French attacked, the English forces streamed out of a doorway that opened onto the mainstage. At this point, the lighting (designed by Michael Pasquini) became decidedly non-naturalistic: strobes flashed, and the coloring turned a deep crimson. Simultaneously, modern rock-opera style music blared from the theatre’s speakers (composed/designed by Joe Payne). The use of such modern music and lighting effects jarred with the medieval mise-en-scène that had been established. This may have been an effort to connect the distant world of the play with the audience. However, it accomplished something more akin to Brecht’s verfremdungseffekt. This reviewer felt compelled to sit up and take note of the action onstage, but also uncomfortable with the fracturing of the production’s aesthetic in a way that made it impossible to enjoy the spectacle of violence. At the intermission, I overheard several audience members complaining about the effect, but also raving about the play’s “hero” Joan, which may have been exactly what the production team wanted.
Tracie Lane played Joan la Pucelle with a reckless abandon. Throughout the opening acts, Lane delivered her lines as if she were nearly out of breath. She had a manic energy onstage, and her chest heaved as she spoke as if in the midst of a holy orgasmic ecstasy. The performance was magnetic, and I could understand why the Dauphin (Ty Fanning) and the French nobles were drawn to Joan. She was more than a foil to Geoffrey Kent’s Talbot, as is often the case in productions of 1 Henry VI, but became the focal point of the play. By contrast to Joan’s buoyancy, Talbot often came across as overly jaded and dangerously narcissistic, highlighting perhaps the deeply-engrained misogyny of the play.
Just before the intermission, Joan’s importance to this vision of the play was brought to the foreground. Lisa Wolpe, in an impressively varied performance, played Bedford (retitled as duchess and adorned with a long, white-gold braid of hair reminiscent of Daenerys Targaryen), Lady Lucy, and Pucelle’s father. As Bedford, she died center stage in the midst of the raging battle in 3.2. At the same time, Lane appeared at the balcony railing above and delivered a rousing version of Joan’s speeches from 3.3 that were cut together. The rock-opera music rose as Wolpe’s Bedford was carried off-stage and Lane was backlit with red light as she raised her sword. This was the final image before the intermission, and was highly reminiscent of a 1970s rock icon giving a virtuoso performance before a stadium full of fans. While perhaps slightly over the top, the audience no longer had any doubt where the production’s loyalties lie.
By contrast to the epic battles in France, the English scenes came across as group of spoiled children fighting over their toys. A. Bryan Humphrey’s Winchester was sufficiently smarmy in his Machiavellian power-grabbing, and Dan Kremer’s Gloucester played off him like a naïve Captain America. Jim Poulos’s King Henry VI was clearly out of his depth at mediating between the factions, and the actor’s apparent youth augmented this. As he doled out titles, banished traitors, and whimsically chose a rose to wear, he seemed more like a child playing king than an actual king. Perhaps the only England scene that humanized the historical conflict was 2.5, between Tarah Flanagan’s cross-casted Mortimer and Michael Elich’s Plantagenet. In a beard, heavy clothes, and long white wig, Flanagan brought gravitas to the part, and the scene served as a calm between the storms.
In all, the production seemed interested in raising Joan to heroic ranks, depicting the English as mostly incompetent fools, and resisting the propagandist underpinnings of the play. Unfortunately, the play’s text is somewhat intractable, and the production did its best to maintain this ethos after the intermission, creating a tension between the script and the depictions on stage.
Talbot became far more human after the introduction of his son (played by Austin Glen Jacobs). When the bickering between York and Somerset negatively affected the war effort, Talbot was the gritty pragmatist doing what was necessary and ignoring the political squabbles of his homeland. In his final battle, staged as the alarum before 4.7, Talbot was alone center stage on the raised platform while fighting off the Dauphin, Joan, and the Duke of Burgundy (Henry A. McDaniel). It was a hero’s death, in spite of the earlier impressions of the character.
Still resisting the text, Joan’s abandonment by the spirits in 5.3 was played with Lane alone onstage. No spirits appeared to confirm the English view of her as a witch, nor the French view as a saint. A tight spotlight penned her in onstage, with the rest of the stage in total darkness. She had the look of a caged animal, and the picture created effectively foreshadowed her literal caging at the end of the play. In 5.4, Joan was enclosed in a wooden cell, her armor gone and her long hair shorn. The sack-cloth she wore was ripped, suggesting abuse at the hands of her capturers. This final image of Joan as fallen hero was enough to keep the audience’s sympathies with her, especially as Suffolk’s (John Innerst) machinations showed the English further descending into infantile disputes.
As the concluding image of the performance, King Henry VI and Margaret (Stephanie Lambourn) held hands and slowly walked the entire breadth of the stage. As they walked, Suffolk mounted the throne, which was on the raised dais and slid smoothly back into the discovery space. Simultaneously, battle scenes from earlier in the play were mimed in slow motion around them. The music rose to its zenith and red and white rose petals dropped from roof like snow all over the stage. This final image simultaneously looked back at the play that was, and forward at the conclusion of the Henry VI plays, which will be performed as a single play in USF’s 2019 season.