Henry VI: Onstage Action Movie

CincinnatiShakespeare Company continues its five-year project to produce the Bard’s“History Cycle,” tracing the reigns of King Richard II and III, and three Henrys(IV, V and VI) in between.

Jan 25, 2016 at 1:14 pm
Caitlin McWethy as Joan of Arc in Henry VI at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Caitlin McWethy as Joan of Arc in Henry VI at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company continues its five-year project to produce the Bard’s “History Cycle,” tracing the reigns of King Richard II and III, and three Henrys (IV, V and VI) in between. Each of these productions has opened with a genealogical tree backdrop showing the tangled web of brothers, cousins, uncles, fathers, sons and various marriages that led to a century of warfare in England, a century or so before Shakespeare wrote about them. We have portraits of the five rulers, although they don’t look too much like the actors playing them. That wasn’t all that important 400 years ago. These were popular plays in Elizabethan times, the 16th-century equivalent of today’s action films, with more emphasis on action than profound content. Trust me, there’s plenty of action onstage — war in France, quarrels between contentious factions back home in England, murders, a burning at the stake — so the fighting is virtually non-stop.

For Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses Cincy Shakes has actually reduced the three Henry VI plays to two; this production encompasses a significant piece of Part II. I suppose that’s a good thing, since it’s not all that easy to keep all these internecine quarrels straight, especially when several actors are playing multiple roles and the action is spread across about two decades.

If you want a contemporary comparison, think about the jockeying of Republican candidates for the U.S. presidency and the sniping that goes on across their interminable campaign. That’s pretty much what happened in this tumultuous century in England, made all the more complex by dynastic rule that put men on the throne (always men, of course) who were often not ready — Henry VI became king when he was nine months old — or incompetent (poor Richard II, and arguably the naïve Henry VI, played by wide-eyed Darnell Pierre Benjamin).

There is much blustering and scheming, and a lot of swordplay here. The most entertaining scenes feature Caitlin McWethy as the cocksure Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans ready to take on all British comers in defense of her French partisans. McWethy does a confident job with the combat, and her feisty presence brightens every moment she’s onstage. In this production’s other show woman’s role, Kelly Mengelkoch plays Queen Margaret, who marries the young king but dallies with Suffolk (Billy Chace); she’s duplicitous and mean-spirited, making her very watchable.

Brent Vimtrup, always able in any role, has to straddle the valiant Lord Talbot and the scheming Earl of Warwick, which felt a bit confusing, as does Jim Hopkins as the blustering Exeter and waffling Burgundy, back and forth in his allegiance to England and France. It’s good to see Giles Davies back onstage Cincy Shakes’ stage as the scheming Richard, Duke of York; Davies gave an award-winning performance of Richard III back in 2006, and I have to assume we might see him in that memorable role again in the 2017-2018 season when this cycle is completed.

Brian Phillips directed this production and, despite its three-hour running time, it feels swift with many of the characters literally running on and off the stage. Scene changes are handled with alacrity, making everything feel more urgent, too.

I was part of a sold-out audience on a Saturday evening, Jan. 23, so if you’re eager to see this tempestuous tale, bear in mind that tickets are selling rapidly. A lot of people love action movies.

HENRY VI: THE WARS OF THE ROSES, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Feb. 23.