'Henry VI' Runs Out of Breath In NY Shakespeare Marathon

Although well-crafted, the production lacks inventiveness

The long-running Shakespeare Marathon, presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival, is gliding toward its conclusion next summer, when it will have presented fully staged productions of every tragedy, comedy, history, and romance that the Bard ever wrote.

As the event gallops down the homestretch, it's not surprising that its producers seem eager to reach the end of their lengthy enterprise. In a clever packaging move, they have taken three of Shakespeare's least popular plays - the "Henry VI" trilogy - and condensed them into a two-part minimarathon.

This is being promoted as one of the most contemporary-style offerings in the whole Marathon, making references to everything from the Los Angeles riots to rock-and-roll rebelliousness. It's also hyped as an adventurous experience, presenting a "wild play" in a manner that "builds from security into chaos."

You wouldn't gather much of this from actually attending the production, though. As directed by Karin Coonrod, this "Henry VI" is a well-crafted production but hardly the explosively inventive show its creators would like us to anticipate.

The story has great interest, focusing on a king who assumes his crown at the preposterously tender age of nine months, and crosses paths with Joan of Arc and Richard III, among many others, before meeting his death at the latter's hands.

But the time is long gone when graffiti on the walls, black leather jackets on the cast, and toppling pillars on the stage can pass as bold new ideas in Shakespearean theatrics. Indeed, such gimmicks seem positively tame in an age when filmmakers routinely move "Richard III" to fascist Europe and make Romeo and Juliet the victims of a late Fedex delivery.

The acting also has little innovation to offer, putting more emphasis on stage-bound posturing and high-strung vocal gymnastics than on the inward-looking psychologizing that might have made the characters seem truly in tune with modern interests.

To be sure, it takes enormous skill and energy for 10 hard-working performers to play a whopping 62 roles, and the Marathon's ensemble carries off this task with aplomb. But the players would be better served if audiences entered the theater with a more accurate idea of what to expect: a basically traditional approach with a few new-fangled twists.

The best of these twists happen near the end, when an uncannily appropriate fox trot accompanies some of the final dialogue, and when killing becomes such an ingrained part of embattled England that a mere look or gesture is enough to drop an enemy dead. A few striking images arise in the first evening, too, as when Joan of Arc's execution is evoked by a flaming garment in a coffin-like container.

OTHER elements of "Henry VI" are effective but rarely exciting. Most noteworthy in the cast are Tom Nelis as the title character, Jan Leslie Harding as Joan of Arc, and Boris McGiver as the revolutionary Jack Cade.

Henry VI was unfortunate not only in the tumultuous historical period over which he had to rule, but also in the ironic literary fact that Shakespeare wrote much better plays about the other monarchs - the slowly maturing Henry IV, the feisty warrior Henry V, the starkly evil Richard III - who came immediately before and after him. Those other kings have received more memorable treatment from stage directors, as well. As presented by the Marathon, Henry VI's history is more workmanlike than inspired.

The two evenings of "Henry VI," subtitled "The Edged Sword" and "Black Storm," continue in repertory at the Public Theater through Jan. 5.

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