While she may not be as recognizable as Beatrice, Viola, Lady Macbeth or many of his more popular leading ladies, Margaret of Anjou is nonetheless a significant presence in Shakespeare’s history plays – specifically the first tetralogy of the War of the Roses. In this 4-part series (Henry VI Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III) she is a remarkable figure.
We first meet her as a young girl at the end of Henry VI, Part 1 when she is taken prisoner by Suffolk and becomes part of a peace deal between France and England to marry King Henry. In the subsequent plays, she rapidly grows into her power, transitioning from queen to conspirator to warrior, eventually ending up a bitter old woman by the time we get to Richard III. Now beholden to those who murdered her family, she lavishes curses on everyone who has wronged her, many of which mysteriously come to pass.
In truth, much of Margaret’s story is fiction. She never met and carried on a love affair with Suffolk and scenes that show her hand in destroying the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were also wrought from Shakespeare’s imagination. Her purpose, then, became a way for the playwright to track the evolution of evil in a formidable character. She is nothing if not memorable.
Now Ensemble Shakespeare Theater takes that progression and builds a complete play around it with Margaret in the starring role. The piece is a thought-provoking study that pulls her story out of the Shakespeare canon and places it front and center, painting a fascinating picture of a complex and powerful woman.
They’ve done it before featuring Shakespeare’s villains (Macbeth, Shylock, and Tybalt) in an inventive trio of entwined stories that was powerful, dark and often very moving. With Margaret, they extract her scenes and connect them with selected material that fills in enough of the story to make a complete narrative. Dance-like battle scenes choreographed by Hilary Thomas are enacted in slow motion silhouette while an original musical score by John Guth lends gravity to director Brian Elerding’s efficient and compelling staging.
The audience is seated very near the action on two sides of the playing area which adds a comfortable feeling of intimacy that works most of the time. Where it interferes is in the choice to use a recurring theatrical device that has the actors reaching into a bowl of talcum powder and smearing it on their faces before their scenes. Since it happens quite often and the space is so close, the white powder ends up lingering in the air and covering the floor. That’s a problem for anyone in the audience with respiratory concerns and by intermission I was racing to get out into the fresh air to stop the congestion it caused me.
As Margaret, Megan Rippey is most successful when playing the character’s younger age but she doesn’t yet have the stature to balance the energy of the men in her later scenes. When Margaret begins to insert herself into royal politics, she becomes a study in nuance. Here is a conniving queen who keeps score of the injustices done to her family and deals out her own measure of comeuppance not in the obvious manner but in a uniquely evil and unusual way.
Case in point – tormenting the vanquished York using a napkin stained with the blood of his son Rutland before mocking him with a paper crown and eventually killing him. The scene is full of subtlety that is lost if one doesn’t look below the surface of her anger to the many ways Margaret is determined to humiliate him.
The role of Margaret also requires a presence that anchors the story as hers alone. Rose Queen is being told from her perspective yet we actually experience little of her point of view. The opportunity in creating this piece is in devising it in such a way that the audience does see the events through her eyes. That can be done with silent staging or even added dialogue since this is already a new play adapted from Shakespeare, but as it stands, the play still feels like it belongs to the men.
Three of them form the heart of this story: John McCormick as Margaret’s nemesis, the Duke of York; Jay Blair as the reluctant King Henry VI; and Brian White as Margaret’s lover, the Earl of Suffolk. White is extremely engaging in his asides to the audience during Margaret’s capture scene and the development of their relationship is one of the most satisfying in this story. Blair’s intriguing portrayal of the king is based on a unique and unexpected rhythm while McCormick’s direct and honest work gives us a Plantagenet with the strength, vocal quality, deportment and charisma to make him a worthy adversary to the Rose Queen.
There is some tendency for others in the cast to make the most of their stage time by chewing the scenery, particularly in highly-charged sequences, and the level of proficiency with the text varies. Still, this is an opportunity to see Margaret’s story from beginning to end. I’m certain Shakespeare would approve.
Shakespeare in LA
SHAKESPEARE’S ROSE QUEEN
February 20 – March 3, 2016
Ensemble Shakespeare Theater
Lineage Performing Arts Center
89 S Fair Oaks Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91105