English Shakespeare Company makes marathon US debut. `War of the Roses' cycle staged at Chicago festival

The question was: Did Britain need another Shakespeare company? Particularly since the Royal Shakespeare Company - its boffo ``Les Mis'erables'' notwithstanding - was floundering. (The swifter-than-swift Broadway demise of ``Carrie'' was only the most recent and public of Royal Shakespeare less-than-successes.)

Following the American premi`ere of the English Shakespeare Company's brilliant and ambitious staging of the Bard's ``War of the Roses'' cycle, the answer, happily, is a resounding ``yes.''

It would be an audacious undertaking for any company, this seven-play, 21-hour marathon production of Shakespeare's English history plays. (The RSC mounted the only other contiguous staging 20 years ago - and then only in Stratford.) But for a nascent, 25-member troupe founded two years ago with ``a small grant to do a small work in a very small place,'' according to company co-founder and actor Michael Pennington, the current world tour is nothing short of astounding.

In fact, so dubious was the company of its ambitious project that the king-size saga (nicknamed ``At Last - The 1399-1603 Show'') was at one point publicized as ``rather like `Dynasty' set in the Middle Ages.''

And that was in England.

In the United States, where the company made its debut at the biennial In-ternational Theatre Festival of Chicago, the ESC is relying simply on the Bard - beautifully staged. Sadly, the company's only other American stopover is at the Stamford (Conn.) Center for the Arts, ending Sunday.

Indeed, there are no famous names on the marquee, no Jeremy Ironses in the company, whose members are culled largely from Britain's regional theaters. (Mr. Pennington and his co-founder, director Michael Bogdanov, are also veterans of the RSC and the National Theatre.) True, American audiences may recognize a face or two from ``Masterpiece Theatre'' programming, but these productions are a celebration of the fluidity and strength of the ensemble.

It is a daunting span, Shakespeare's history cycle - a century-long stretch that takes England from the reign of King Richard II to the death of Richard III and the crowning of Henry Tudor as King Henry VII - the beginning of Britain's current royal lineage. It's a complicated series of coups, wars, and contretemps, what with the dauphin and the wranglings of the French court thrown in. Not for nothing are the three parts of``Henry VI'' (here condensed to two) seldom performed. But Mr. Bogdanov and company have made these homework-like plays user-friendly Shakespeare and gripping, immediate history by trimming, rewriting, and juggling scenes, particularly in the Henry VIs (including an almost complete reworking of Joan of Arc's character).

But such textual alterations are no guarantee of stirring theater, and it's here that the ESC production shines with a series of brilliantly conceived theatrical images. Bogdanov is known for his aggressively visual direction. His recent RSC production of ``Romeo and Juliet'' was littered with motorbikes and an Alfa Romeo. And in this history cycle the style is also modern - or rather creeping modernity: early 19th century to 1988. But Bogdanov keeps the staging in the service of the material. He sets ``Richard II'' in the appropriate Regency style. By the time the Henry VIs are reached, the antagonists are clad in a mix of World War I and Falkland Island invasion fatigues. Richard III is a Chicago-style mobster wearing square-shoulder pin-stripe suits surrounded by machine-gun-toting toadies. Throughout the heat of the War of the Roses, Bogdanov wisely keeps color-coded roses (white for York, red for Lancaster) lodged in the actors' lapels. Banners bearing gold fleur-de-lis drop down, indicating France. And so on.

Virtually none of it is as original or arresting as the staging in ``Nicholas Nickelby,'' but neither is it the visual bombast of ``Les Mis'erables.'' It is minimal to the point of being evocative - a greasing of the textual wheels giving the movement and flavor of Shakespeare's canon free rein. And in this back-back-back staging (the epic is presented in braces of three), one gets the added bonus of hearing the emergence of Shakespeare's genius, from the rough-hewn prose of Henry VIs to the poetic and soliloquy-rich ``Richard III.''

But all Bogdanov's canny staging would go for naught without the generally superb acting (not to mention stamina) the company musters for this marathon. Each of the 25 actors doubles, triples, quadrupules up on roles; some supposedly play up to 40 parts. (Even this multiple casting has its own methodology: Actors play lesser parts whose characters contrast with their lead roles.) Clear standouts in a top-rank company include the four male leads: Pennington (Richard II and Henry V), John Castle (Henry IV), Paul Brennen (Henry VI), and Andrew Jarvis (Richard III), as well as Barry Stanton and June Watson.

Finally, a word about the cumulative impact of the epic staging - an approach very much in vogue, what with such previous marathon productions as ``Nicholas Nickleby'' and Peter Brook's ``The Mahabharata.'' The effect is considerable. It is also demanding. Even sitting through three of the seven plays (as did this reviewer), one occasionally longed for further textual trimming. And some of performances swerved toward broad. But watching the subtle development of Mr. Jarvis's Richard III from clownish sibling in Henry VI to fully formed, deformed tyrant was breathtaking and realized only through the plays' juxtaposition. One also saw that the history of nations was ultimately personal - that power turns on a slender and human axis - the love of a woman, love of God, fear, revenge, and that peace had few windows of opportunity.

The cycle reached its visual climax, however, in the dazzling second-to-last scene in the last play - the final battle between the houses of York and Lancaster - the hand-to-hand combat of Richard III and Henry Tudor. Jettisoning modern dress for a return to gleaming armor, Bogdanov gives us a black knight and a golden knight grappling in the shadows of a waning dynasty. Accompanied by Samuel Barber's eloquent ``Adagio for Strings,'' which was also used as the background music for the Vietnam film ``Platoon,'' the scene became not only an encapsulation of the history of Britain and the divisiveness of mankind but also a comment on the culture by which mankind examines its endless divisions.

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