Last night was opening night for Henry VI Part 2 at Staunton's American Shakespeare Center. Once again, it is astounding how this company can put together such a wonderful performance in such a short time--less than two weeks from the beginning of rehearsal to opening night. But that's the Actors' Renaissance Season, and it's a special experience. (This season I've already seen Twelfth Night, Doctor Faustus, and The Alchemist, with only The Roman Actor to go, although if I have the time I'll certainly want to see some of these shows a second time.)
2 Henry VI is part of the history cycle, and it's not too difficult to get up to speed in this one. Henry VI is on the throne, aided by the Lord Protector, the Duke of Gloucester. But the peace between the Houses of Lancaster and York is fragile, and the arrival of Queen Margaret upsets the balance, so that eventually the Duke of York raises an army and the War of the Roses commences. Along the way there are a number of beheadings, some secret romance, and a commoner uprising that I'll come back to.
The production isn't flawless. But it is always imaginative, and it has moments of great comedy as well as fine emotional scenes. And, as usual, there are some standout performances. First, Denice Burbach is excellent as Henry VI. She portrayed Henry's naivete beautifully, and later, upon the death of Humphrey, did the same with his sorrow. When Queen Margaret, played powerfully by Sarah Fallon, is flirting openly with the Duke of Suffolk, Burbach's surprise and hurt are plain on her face. Benjamin Curns turns in another great performance, this time as the Lord Protector. His devotion to Henry is clear and their scenes are wonderful, but I especially like his interaction with Eleanor, acted by Allison Glenzer in one of her best performances. Eleanor, like Margaret, is ambitious, but her means are more subtle, and Glenzer is a pleasure to watch. Rene Thornton, Jr. is Richard, Duke of York, constantly frustrated by the machinations of the Lancaster crew, although he gets the last laugh. We've also got strong performances from Gregory Jon Phelps as the Duke of Suffolk, Chris Johnston as Duke of Buckingham, Daniel Kennedy as Earl of Salisbury and also Jack Cade, and Tyler Moss as Earl of Warwick and Dick the Butcher.
And I can't forget to mention John Harrell as the Bishop of Winchester. As usual, Harrell is terrific in his role (he also plays Lord Clifford) but he was especially funny during the pre-show, where he appeared in his guise as the Bishop and delivered the traditional instructions (no pictures, turn off the cell phones, etc.) as a catechism. Hilarious.
One more thing about this play. This is the play from which we get the line, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." It's spoken by Dick the Butcher during the uprising of Jack Cade, and it's simply part of the mob's mistrust of anyone with learning. In fact, they so hate the learned (or anyone who can read), that Jack Cade's mob put me in mind of the Tea Party rabble, the anti-intellectuals who are opposed to all government. They were soundly defeated by the King's army, which gives me some hope.