Attempting to produce all of Shakespeare’s plays would be daunting task for any theatre company but one young group of actors has continued to stay the course. Over a ten-year period, the Porters of Hellsgate have produced twenty of the playwright’s thirty-eight plays, steadily working toward their goal of being the first in Los Angeles to mount the entire canon. This season, they tackle three at once with Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3.
Parts 1 & 2 have been trimmed to a single act each, performed together as one two-and-a-half-hour production. Part 3 has also been edited down to a similar length and is performed in repertory on alternating nights. (Schedule here) Each is a stand-alone production so you can see one, or both, or even both in one day, if you like.
In either case, read the plot summaries in the program ahead of time, especially if you aren’t familiar with these plays, or with the Wars of the Roses. And let’s face it. Most of us are not.
If you break it down and divide the Wars into two parts – Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3 and Richard III make up the second half of the story, but Shakespeare wrote this section first. He would later go back and write the first half of the story in Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V.
In essence, these eight plays deal with the passing of the crown back and forth between the House of York and the House of Lancaster. Both were descendants of Edward III with a legitimate claim to the throne, and therein lies the problem.
The Porters have edited the material heavily to facilitate the running time and since the story concerns battle after battle after battle, at some point you’ll certainly lose track of which side has the crown. Just keep your eye on the color of the rose each man wears. That way, even if you don’t know his name you’ll know which house is speaking.
The trilogy is a valiant undertaking and while director Thomas Bigley and his cast do not always achieve coherency in the production, there are still some thrilling moments of impassioned storytelling. Tempers run high in these works and with it the urge for actors to one up each other both in volume and presence. Veterans like Michael Matthys (excellent as Gloucester) and Liza de Weerd (Margaret of Anjou) are exceptions whose work captures the full range of their characters without crossing the line into distortion.
Part 1 establishes the division of loyalties as York (Matt Jayson), Suffolk (Christopher Salazar) and their followers each angrily choose a rose from the garden to signify their allegiance; white for House of York, red for House of Lancaster.
In Part 1, we also witness the rise of Joan La Pucelle (Makeda Declet) whom we know more famously as Saint Joan of Arc. First, as a champion of the French, and later burned at the stake in Part 2, Shakespeare took liberties in his characterization that are still refuted to this day. She was a woman of great military ability much beloved by her people, and yet the playwright turns her into a failed sorceress and even a scheming coward at the end. Declet plays both ends of the spectrum.
Though the trilogy bears his name, the character of King Henry VI (Christine Sage) is more an observer of the action than a participant, especially in Parts 1 & 2. Only a boy when crowned, he can do little more than watch his subjects and enemies argue while Gloucester, acting as his Protector, engages in heated disagreements with Winchester (Jacques Freydont). Sage paces her lines at quite a different tempo than the explosive outbursts that buffet back and forth between the rest of the men on stage and, for the most part, it resonates believably as the hesitancy of a child-king. Still, Henry progresses in age and demeanor from Part 1 to Part 3 and that change is less obvious.
The bulk of Part 2 is spent introducing and developing the character of Jack Cade (Tim Portnoy), a belligerent rebel who is enlisted to incite discord among the townspeople. The problem here is that these scenes so completely push past the bounds of reason that the resulting comic portrayal is painful, even though it contains some laughs. The actor gets points for commitment but it simply isn’t plausible.
Gus Krieger (Richard III), on the other hand, brilliantly lands the button to both Parts 2 & 3 with the addition of a single word. This foreshadowing of the opening to Richard III adds a sly wink to an otherwise straightforward adaptation.
One other significant scene takes place in Part 2 – between Margaret and Suffolk – which lays the groundwork for her to marry Henry while remaining Suffolk’s lover. He, too, has aspirations of glory, declaring in an aside to the audience that he shall rule Margaret, the king, and the realm. Well, that remains to be seen.
Part 3 is most notable for the civil war that begins, first between Margaret and the Duke of York and later between she and Richard III. By this time she is Queen, and when King Henry agrees to let the crown pass out of their family line to the Yorks in order to broker peace, she is incensed. With the death of her son and her husband, Margaret’s curses begin in earnest and de Weerd emerges as a worthy adversary in the Wars of the Roses.
There is a fair amount of posturing and shouting among the company in Part 3 but the brutal swordplay is riveting. Some of the stiffness may be attributed to the costuming, which consists of business suits and contemporary dress, but it also comes from the posh vocal affectations used by less experienced cast members. The result is a stuffy formality that distances the actors from the audience creating a kind of generalized acting style. No amount of blustering can force one to pay attention. Tell us the story and we’ll care. Pound us over the head with it and we’ll tune it out.
Surprisingly, one of the most natural, and most convincing, performances comes from a company member who is typically charged with supporting roles for The Porters. Sean Faye comes into his own as Warwick, gaining momentum as the events of Part 3 come to a head. He asserts himself with steady determination and ends up creating a compelling character by staying present to the proceedings so he can respond in the immediacy of the moment.
By design, the most striking element of the production is a gigantic family tree painted on the walls of the black box, credited to director Thomas Bigley. It surrounds everything and everyone, and is a constant reminder that all of them bow to the claims of their ancestors. Not one in his, or her, own story can break out of the larger picture. They live to serve the line. If ever there was a way to show that these historical figures were secondary to their lineages, this is it.
There are few opportunities to see Shakespeare’s history plays performed in Los Angeles. The Porters have smartly adapted them to make them easier for a modern audience to digest. My recommendation: pick a character or two and follow their paths throughout Parts 1, 2 & 3 rather than trying to make sense of it all. You’ll be better served.
Shakespeare in LA
HENRY VI Parts 1, 2 & 3
May 6 – June 5, 2016
The Porters of Hellsgate
Whitmore-Lindley Theatre Center
11006 W Magnolia Blvd
North Hollywood, CA 91601