Henry VI, Part 1
The Truth Is in the Toddlers
Joan (Kimberly Gilbert) and Dauphin (Dan Crane) face off in a test of skills in Taffety Punk's Bootleg Shakespeare production of William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part One, at the Folger Theatre (on the set of District Merchants). Below, James Beaman as Talbot. Photos by Brittany Diliberto, Taffety Punk.
When you stage a full-length William Shakespeare play in just one day, you tend to rely on—and therefore reveal—the bare essentials of the work. That's one thing I love about plays staged under Shakespeare's original production processes, such as those at the American Shakespeare Center and Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, and plays staged in less than a day, which Taffety Punk does with its annual Bootleg Shakespeare production at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. Whereas original production process utilizes up to a week of rehearsal, Taffety Punk's Bootleg casts meet for the first time at 10 in the morning and present their play at 7:30 that same evening.
The results are generally—and stunningly, considering the conditions—great Shakespeare as well as exhilarating theater. I count their Bootleg Shakespeare Love's Labour's Lost in 2013 and Two Gentlemen of Verona last year among the best productions of those plays I've ever seen (my wife, Sarah, saw the Bootleg Shakespeare Pericles in 2014 and wrote a glowing review). This is Taffety Punk's 10th year doing these Bootleg productions, which started on a dare in 2007 with Cymbeline. As it turned into an annual tradition (and one of the hottest tickets in the D.C. theater scene), the company has always focused on Shakespeare's more obscure and, therefore, more-challenging-to-stage pieces: Henry VIII in 2008, Troilus and Cressida in 2009, The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2010, the Bad Quarto version of Hamlet in 2011, King John in 2012.
This year, they took on Henry VI, Part One, and they have finally, in our experience, bitten off more than they could chew. I'm not talking quality so much as quantity. The production's cast list has 32 players who portray a total of 75 named characters, with four additionally listed as "Ensemble" plus six others with "et al." Talk about the logistical challenges of crowd control. Director Marcus Kyd, in his preshow introduction and instructions to the audience, joked that the company got through most of the play in its one day of rehearsal; there appears to be some truth underlying the joke as some scenes had a ramshackle quality to them.
Though cast members have had their scripts for two months and are expected to arrive off book, a prompter is on hand to feed those actors who call for "line!" I've been amazed how few line calls I've heard in previous Bootleg Shakespeare productions, so with that as a context, I was surprised how often I heard them in this performance by several actors. One key scene, that of the Countess Auvergne kidnapping Talbot, almost had as many line calls as lines read.
That scene, on the other hand, also results in a ninefold expansion of the cast, for the audience, packed into the 278-seat theater, serves as Talbot's army. The Countess thinks she has captured Talbot, but he claims that the person she sees before her is "but shadow of myself." As James Beaman playing Talbot issues the command to "Stand!" (replacing the stage direction of "winds his horn" upon which his soldiers enter), we stand and became his "substance, sinews, arms and strength." Cool. Per Kyd's preshow instructions, the audience also provides all of the play's flourishes ("Too doodle tooot!"), alarums ("Doo doo dooo!"), short alarums ("Doo do!"), and retreats ("Retreat!"). I have to admit I dropped some of my lines, too; I could just not remember how to make the alarum call.
Because of the circumstances in which the play is staged—the short preparation time and an audience anticipating chaos—you get an unfiltered look at Henry VI, Part One, and, I posit, Shakespeare's original intent in how this play should be staged.
Most obviously, he's making fun of the French. The opening scene segues from the solemnity of Henry V's funeral (the lords in black with royal crests hanging around their necks) into the political crises of growing disputes among the English nobles while territory is being lost in France. Scene Two features the French lords, Charles the Dauphin (Dan Crane), the Duke of Alençon (James Flanagan), and Reignier (Patrick Kilpatrick). Dressed in whites, light blue jackets, and tan slacks, they behave as if prepping for a croquet match at the country club, though they are about to attack the English at Orléans. Crane's Dauphin effects a 'tude-of-the-'hood cadence when he delivers his commands, boasts, and threats, which is silly in this middle-aged, privileged white guy, though it inspires awe in his noble entourage.
The real surprise—though it shouldn't be—is Kimberly Gilbert's Joan la Pucelle. The Joan of Arc we are familiar with comes to us through French history (and a bit of mythology), the Catholic Church, George Bernard Shaw, and Ingrid Bergman. Shakespeare, like most 16th century Englishmen, didn't see her as anything more than a harlot engaging in witchcraft, though Shakespeare, being unlike most 16th century Englishmen, turns those qualities into a wickedly funny and powerful character. Gilbert's Joan is a witch all the way. She supernaturally freezes Talbot when they face off because "thy hour is not yet come," she says with the confidence of a Wall Street trader privy to illegal insider information. She casts a spell on Burgundy in order to entice him to switch sides and join with the French forces. "Either she hath bewitched me with her words, or nature makes me suddenly relent," says Maboud Ebrahimzadeh's Burgundy as if he'd just taken a hit of potent peyote.
She also uses her seductive wiles to enact God's will. Gilbert wears a plain gray, slinky dress accentuating her curves—which she further accentuates when she duels with Dauphin in order to prove her skills and the Virgin Mary's charter for her to lead the French into battle against the English. The Dauphin is helpless to her parrying his punto reverso with a thrust of her hip and countering his passado with the cappa e spada of her breasts. Nevertheless, Gilbert is a Taffety Punk Riot Grrrrl extraordinaire, and her Joan harbors a feminist motivation. When Dauphin relents to her, calling her "an Amazon and fightest with the sword of Deborah," Joan deflects the praise. "Christ's mother helps me," she says, but Gilbert switches to a cynical Betty Boop reading of the rest of the line: "else I were too weak."
While Shakespeare makes the French silly and evil, he had a heroic view of Talbot. We even have an eyewitness account, from writer Thomas Nashe, presumably of the play's original production in which "it would have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that ... he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who ... imagine they behold him fresh bleeding" (I'm quoting from the Arden edition of Henry VI, Part One, Methuen 1981). Beaman maintains a staunchly heroic demeanor in his portrayal of Talbot, which is a courageous thing in its own right. The character is a 2D representation of honorable heroism and wields a stringent patriotic fervor that would make Captain America roll his eyes. It's tempting in these antiheroic times to play him with ironic overtones or cynically. Beaman bravely thrusts out his chest and rips through Talbot's verse like an American Gladiator doing arm curls—and it works. Nay, it's endearing, a performance that borders on mesmerizing, even with the part's, and the larger play's, confusing contextual bearing.
The English lords are more complex. They all seem noble, they all seem patriotic, they all speak courageously, they all seem egomaniacal, they all seem self-serving, they all seem immature, and they come off in several wrangling scenes as sillier than the French. Nevertheless, the Temple Garden scene, in which various dukes, dukes-to-be, and earls pluck white and red roses off the bushes, is played here with a sustained jolt of electricity, even as two actors serve as the two rose bushes ("rose bush" is not listed among the characters in the program, so these might be a couple of et als.).
What to make of Gloucester, who, in Todd Scofield's steady performance, seems devoted to his duties as Lord Regent yet weak in his ability to consolidate his power? What to make of Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of York, who, in Teresa Spencer's hyperactive performance, seems dutifully earnest but lacks opacity when it comes to his ambition? What to make of the Duke of Somerset, who, in Paul Reisman's snarky performance, acts heroic but displays a passive aggressive bent as he manipulates the court bureaucracy? What to make of the Bishop of Winchester—well, Daniel Flint makes him evil, front and center, wearing a red leather overcoat with a white cross painted on the back and, later, preening with his newly gained cardinal's vestments. If, beyond Flint's Winchester, you're not sure whether any of the English lords are on the up and up, Exeter (Paul Nicholas) serves as a kind of chorus at the end of several scenes to tell you unequivocally, no, they are not; these guys are corrupt and leading England to ruin and an eventual exit from its continental interests.
In the middle of all these confounding English noblemen is the title character, Henry VI. Esther Williamson maintains a naïve posture in her portrayal of the young king beset on all sides by the raging egos of his peers and their infatuation with red and white roses, not to mention those annoying French who just won't behave as proper Englishmen. Williamson gets a wonderfully comical moment when Henry's Uncle Gloucester broaches the subject of getting Henry married to a French royal peerage. "Marriage, uncle?" Williamson's Henry says, as if the Lord Regent had just suggested that the king run down the street naked. "Alas, my years are young, and fitter is my study and my books than wanton dalliance with a paramour," which, in Williamson's delivery, is a classy way of saying, "Ewwww, girls!" (Williamson doubles as Talbot's son, and in playing an exact chip off his father's block, she has to go to an extreme opposite portrayal from that of her timid Henry.)
Fans of Shakespeare's Henry VI cycle know that the real lead character in these plays has only one brief scene in Part One: Prince Margaret, daughter of Reignier (ostensibly, the king of Naples and Jerusalem, though these are pretty much honorary titles). She later becomes Henry VI's queen through the subversive machinations of the Earl of Suffolk, who wants to make Margaret his mistress (he succeeds in that, by the way—in this production right off the bat). As a fan of Margaret myself, the first thing I do after taking my seat for a production of Henry VI, Part One, is glance through the cast list to see who is playing her, knowing the portrayal could continue in subsequently produced Parts Two and Three and perhaps Part Four (i.e., Richard III). The actress's name on this cast list: Tonya Beckman. Any time Beckman's name shows up in association with any production, but especially with Taffety Punk, it charges my anticipation.
First we have to make it through four full acts—two hours and 15 minutes of this 2:30 production (including intermission)—before we see Margaret. In that time, Beckman is playing "et al.," but what an et al. it is, a secretary-like member of Gloucester's entourage. Wearing an office-appropriate black dress, she's constantly scribbling everything everybody says in her steno notebook and reacting appropriately to each speaker: an impressed look when Gloucester says something wise, a crowing look when Gloucester says something cool, a disgusted look at everything Winchester says. It's one of those out-of-nowhere, singular performances, wordless though it is, that Beckman brings to so many productions I've seen her in, infusing a comic richness in what otherwise could devolve into bland iambic pentameter. When her Margaret emerges as Suffolk (Chris Genebach) captures her, she is wearing a lovely white sundress with stitching that could pass as fleur-de-lis (Scott Hammar is the costume and props designer). Beckman's repartee with Genebach is keenly sharp, their political love dance enticingly exact, as if suddenly getting a scene from Will and Grace while you're watching Big Brother.
Henry VI, Part One, has a lot of fights and combat—you don't realize just how much until you start losing your vocal chords for all the "Doo doo dooo!" "Too doodle tooot!" and "Retreats!" you have to speak—but with only one day to rehearse them, the company has to consider stage combat safety standards. The answer: actors bearing swords, daggers, knives, and sticks fill the stage, but all are fighting imaginary foes, not each other. It resembles what you see after you kick a mound of ants, but the yelling is louder here. Sure, it's kind of silly—like the French and the English are in this play. But it's all fun.
July 28, 2016