Monday, December 6, 2021

Henry VI Part 1 (Shakespeare By The Sea 2021 Production) Theatre Review

Outdoor theatre in December? Sure thing! After all, this is southern California, and the pandemic hasn’t yet come to a close. In better times, Shakespeare By The Sea travels all around the area in the summer, bringing two of Shakespeare’s plays to various parks. The pandemic caused the company to remain in San Pedro the last two seasons, performing virtually, filming the productions from a stage built in the parking lot outside their theatre in San Pedro. Then, this summer, with more and more people being vaccinated, they invited an audience to enjoy productions of Richard III and Love’s Labour’s Lost, and now their latest production, a staged reading of one of Shakespeare’s rarely performed plays, The First Part Of King Henry The Sixth. And even though it’s southern California, it still gets cold at night, so the audience came prepared, bundled up in coats, scarves, even furs.

The stage and backdrop were all black, the only color being a basket of white roses and a basket of red roses, set on either side of the main entrance up center, highlighting the division within the kingdom. Before the performance began, pink lights bathed the stage on the side with the red roses, while blue and white lights shone on the side with the white roses. The set itself was fairly simple, with a black bench positioned up right, and a sword seemingly embedded in the stage just down from the bench. There were chairs off to either side of the stage that the audience was instructed not to sit on as they entered, and these chairs were used by the cast when not on stage. The cast also used those areas to change costumes, as most actors played more than one character.

The performance began at 7:10 p.m., with Brendan Kane as Henry VI also functioning as a chorus or narrator, giving short bits of information to help the audience keep the many characters and situations clear. And he remains a presence on stage through much of the performance, often observing from upstage. Though it is a staged reading (with some actors more off book than others), the cast is in period costumes. The play begins with the funeral of Henry V, and the cast indicates that the king’s body is downstage center through looks and gestures rather than actually having someone play the dead king. Exeter’s line “We mourn in black” stands out in part because of the color of the set, helping to show that all the action that is to take place on the stage is the result, more or less, of Henry V’s death. Though some male characters are played by women in this production, those characters seem to retain their gender, as shown when Winchester (Mark Rimer) tells Gloucester (played by Jane Hink) “Thy wife is proud.”

Joan La Pucell (played by Olivia Schlueter-Corey, who was phenomenal as Katharine in the company’s 2019 production of Henry V) enters in chain mail and carrying a sword. She speaks with a vibrant energy, and it is clear from her voice and the way she carries herself that she is sure of herself. Not a trace of worry can be detected. When Charles (Azim Rizk) challenges Joan to combat, he lifts the sword from the stage. The combat is brief, and Charles is on his knees when delivering his line about being her servant, making clear his sexual attraction to her. By the way, the sword is then returned to its spot in the stage, to be used at various times throughout the performance. For example, Henry VI hands it to Talbot (Patrick Vest) to fight Joan after the death of Salisbury (Bridget Garwood). Joan at this point has a joy that borders on arrogance in her delivery, even before entering with Charles, triumphant.

As for the famous choosing-of-the-roses scene, I love that Richard Plantagenet (Jonathan Fisher) looks around and sees the roses before delivering that line about plucking a white rose. You get the sense that it is only because the roses are handy, and if the roses hadn’t been present, it might have some other thing at hand he would have chosen to represent his side. That moment, in showing the roses were basically an arbitrary symbol, also helps illustrate the sort of juvenile aspect to the whole division. This production does have a bit of re-ordering of certain scenes, with the roses scene happening before Talbot is lured by a messenger to the castle of the Countess of Auvergne. That scene with Lord Talbot and the Countess (Pantea Ommi Mohajer) is fantastic, both actors delivering good performances. I especially love the playfulness of the Countess in teasing Talbot, and her sudden change once she sees the soldiers. Another excellent moment is when the French call a parley with Burgundy (Mark Rimer). I imagine it might be difficult to portray such a sudden shift in allegiance, but Rimer does a really good job as he is swayed by Joan’s words. Then Brendan Kane is great in the scene where he meets Talbot, particularly his delivery of the speech where he tells Talbot “Because till now we never saw your face.”

Another highlight of this production is the scene where Henry VI is crowned and then tries to forge a peace between Plantagenet and Somerset. It is an exciting scene, because here is the king finally acting as king, and he can’t even bring peace among his own people. And the look of shock on his face when the quarrel continues is excellent. Perhaps in that moment he senses his own weakness, but doesn’t give up his effort. Brendan Kane also plays the young John Talbot, turning in another good performance. The scenes with the two Talbots are quite moving, especially their deaths. Patrick Vest shines there. What Brendan Kane really nails in his portrayal of Henry VI is his youth. That look of shock when his words fail to have an immediate and lasting effect is a perfect example. But also excellent is his initial response of surprise when the subject of his marriage is raised. And then he quickly changes as he realizes his duty, a nice moment. And speaking of change, Olivia Schlueter-Corey as Joan displays a great change in her demeanor when she kneels in seeking the help of the spirits and does not receive it. We see clearly that underneath that proud and haughty exterior, there is a frightened person who will soon try all sorts of pretexts to avoid her execution.

Roberto Williams and Bridget Garwood as Suffolk and Margaret respectively are wonderful and funny in the wooing scene. Suffolk kisses Margaret on the cheek on “Farewell, sweet madam” rather than on “And this withal.” After Suffolk’s “But I will rule both her, the king, and the realm,” there is another short speech given by Henry VI, which concludes the performance. The last words are “made their England bleed,” which is actually taken from the Chorus’ speech at the end of Henry The Fifth. The performance ended at 9:17 p.m.

This production was directed by Stephanie Coltrin, and the performance includes one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III. There were only two performances, but the performance last night was filmed, and will be available to watch online beginning December 19th at 2 p.m. On that date, there is also scheduled an online discussion with the director and cast. Visit the Shakespeare By The Sea website for more information.

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