Thursday, February 05, 2009

American Shakespeare Center: Henry VI, Part I

Are we confused yet? At one point midway through the American Shakespeare Center production of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1, Edmund Mortimer, uncle to Richard Plantagenet, summarizes the recent history of royal houses and how it was that young King Henry VI came to the throne. Listen closely to that speech--it clears up a lot about the factions on the English side of the war. On the other hand, the real story in this play is the war with the French, and so keeping those sides straight is the real key. And since the French have Joan of Arc (Joan la Pucelle here), that's not so difficult.

There are some wonderful performances in this show. Alyssa Wilmoth plays a bright young King Henry, and since he is really a boy it is fitting that a small woman should play him. And she's terrific in the part. Henry seems wise, and yet embarrassed at the prospect of marrying, since he is still young. But he's not so young that Suffolk's description of Margaret of Anjou doesn't sway him in the end. Wilmoth shows these progressions very nicely. Miriam Donald does a fine job as Joan la Pucelle. Joan is less heroic in the Shakespeare portrayal, but Donald makes her both mystical and manipulative, but defiant to the end. John Harrell is, as always, wonderful in his several roles, especially as Charles the Dauphin. His infatuation with Joan is especially amusing. Benjamin Curns is excellent as the Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector to King Henry, as is Christopher Seiler in his main role as Lord Talbot, the Englishman who inflicts so much damage on the French. Gregory Jon Phelps is both Duke of Burgundy, who is persuaded by Joan to shift sides in the war, and Earl of Suffolk, who deviously convinces Henry to marry Margaret, whom Suffolk desires for himself, and Phelps is especially good there. Rene Thornton Jr. is strong as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, as are Thomas Keegan as the Bishop of Winchester, Chris Johnston as Exeter, and Sarah Fallon as Margaret. This cast works beautifully together.

The play covers a lot of historical ground, although it all eventually becomes clear. There is one scene, though, that I think I will remember above all. Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, played by Christopher Seiler, is about to go into a battle in which his forces are unexptectedly outnumbered. His son, played by Gregory Jon Phelps, is with him and Talbot tries to send his son away. The son insists on staying. Seiler and Phelps do a great job with this scene, which is lovely poetry. And also redundant. Basically the two settle the argument--young Talbot will stay. They fight, they're victorious for the moment, and then they have the same argument again. The outcome is the same and father and son go back into battle, but this time things don't go their way. If I were Shakespeare's editor, I think I'd have condensed that scene. Nonetheless, it's fun to watch these two actors execute it:

O young John Talbot! I did send for thee
To tutor thee in stratagems of war,
That Talbot's name might be in thee revived
When sapless age and weak unable limbs
Should bring thy father to his drooping chair.
But, O malignant and ill-boding stars!
Now thou art come unto a feast of death,
A terrible and unavoided danger:
Therefore, dear boy, mount on my swiftest horse;
And I'll direct thee how thou shalt escape
By sudden flight: come, dally not, be gone.

Is my name Talbot? and am I your son?
And shall I fly? O if you love my mother,
Dishonour not her honourable name,
To make a bastard and a slave of me!
The world will say, he is not Talbot's blood,
That basely fled when noble Talbot stood.

Fly, to revenge my death, if I be slain.

He that flies so will ne'er return again.

If we both stay, we both are sure to die.

Then let me stay; and, father, do you fly:
Your loss is great, so your regard should be;
My worth unknown, no loss is known in me.
Upon my death the French can little boast;
In yours they will, in you all hopes are lost.
Flight cannot stain the honour you have won;
But mine it will, that no exploit have done:
You fled for vantage, everyone will swear;
But, if I bow, they'll say it was for fear.
There is no hope that ever I will stay,
If the first hour I shrink and run away.
Here on my knee I beg mortality,
Rather than life preserved with infamy.

Shall all thy mother's hopes lie in one tomb?

Ay, rather than I'll shame my mother's womb.

Upon my blessing, I command thee go.

To fight I will, but not to fly the foe.

Part of thy father may be saved in thee.

No part of him but will be shame in me.

Thou never hadst renown, nor canst not lose it.

Yes, your renowned name: shall flight abuse it?

Thy father's charge shall clear thee from that stain.

You cannot witness for me, being slain.
If death be so apparent, then both fly.

And leave my followers here to fight and die?
My age was never tainted with such shame.

And shall my youth be guilty of such blame?
No more can I be sever'd from your side,
Than can yourself yourself in twain divide:
Stay, go, do what you will, the like do I;
For live I will not, if my father die.

And so on for a good bit more. In any case, this fine production should not be missed. It's part of the ASC's Actor's Renaissance Season and you can also catch the company's helarious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy, with two more productions coming soon: The Changeling and The Blind Beggar of Alexandria.

Buy your tickets, see the shows, and support the American Shakespeare Center.

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