The “parental advisory” notice on the door of the Center Stage Theater must contain the understatement of the month. It warns potential patrons that Henry VI, Part 3 contains “some violent scenes.”
That it does. For instance, there’s the scene in which two people decapitate a third, using a hacksaw. We don’t see any actual slicing, but we watch the victim’s legs and feet twitch helplessly as we hear his agonized moans. Welcome to the gruesome world of early Shakespeare.
Having graphically shown us the horror of hand-to-hand combat, director John Blondell opts for a more stylized approach to the bulk of the battle scenes. Acts of unspeakable brutality are mimed, repeatedly and ferociously, with red-tipped poles standing in for bloodied swords. It’s all quite horrifying, and rightly so: Henry VI, Part 3 depicts a civil war, and as we know from American history, civil wars tend to be the most vicious of all.
In what is perhaps the most famous scene of this seldom-produced play, one soldier realizes the man he has just slain is his father, while another realizes the opponent he has just killed is his son. And for what? There’s no “right” or “wrong” side in this struggle for the English throne; there’s just a palpable sense that animalistic instincts have been unleashed, and that events have spun wildly out of control.
Blondell’s fast-moving, emotionally shattering production is a landmark for all sorts of reasons. First, it kicks off the 20th year of his always innovative Lit Moon Theatre Company. Second, it’s a trial run of sorts for the locally based director, who will be staging this play again in London in May as part of the Globe Theatre’s ambitious World Shakespeare Festival.
Finally, it’s a rare chance to see an important but underappreciated Shakespeare work. Part of the first cycle of history plays, Henry VI, Part 3 immediately precedes Richard III, and that malevolent hunchback (Marie Ponce) is a major player in this work, already scheming to get to the throne.
The title character is a sad figure. King Henry VI (Victoria Finlayson) is portrayed as a decent, compassionate, but ineffectual man who is no match for his fierce, ambitious opponents—not to mention his fierce, ambitious allies. In the first scene, the monarch attempts to head off conflict by agreeing to a compromise: He will remain king until his death, at which point, his opponent, York (Stanley Hoffman), will take the throne. But partisans on both sides fiercely oppose this arrangement. Soon the weak Henry is effectively shoved aside, and war is at hand.
Cutting the play down to a brisk two and three-quarter hours, Blondell clearly charts its many reversals and ironies, even finding a surprising amount of humor. The subdued costumes (created by the company) suggest we’re somewhere near the present day, but anachronisms are, for the most part, skillfully avoided. A couple of questionable late-inning choices notwithstanding (balloons?), the production wisely avoids gimmicks, relying on the talent of a superb group of actors who consistently convey the grim tale’s intense emotions.
The casting is gender-blind. Finlayson beautifully embodies the title character, playing up his neediness as well as his essential goodness. This Henry really is a lost soul. Ponce is an appropriately creepy Richard; her tendency to rock while standing in place conveys both the character’s discomfort and his impatience. Diana Small doesn’t fully convey the tiger-like nature of Margaret, Henry’s queen, but she comes through in the deeply moving final scenes, mourning the one death she didn’t see coming, and couldn’t imagine occurring.
Jeff Mills, Brian Harwell, and Hoffman do superb work in a variety of roles. Jim Connolly’s bass-and-percussion-heavy score contributes greatly to the sense we’ve entered a world gone mad.