It’s a compelling and thoughtful concept, one explained passionately and thoughtfully by actor, director, and adapter, Austin Pendleton, who is wearing all three hats in the Ruth Stage’s Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard IIIrunning August 1-19 at the 125 Bank Street Theatre. When actor Matt de Rogatis (Triad Theater’s Lone Star) approached Pendleton (CSC’s Ivanov) about starring as the deformed Richard III, the director writes that he was notably intrigued, contemplating and then posing the fascinating question; what formed and drove this remarkably complex man to become the disturbed and violent king? It’s a strongly formulated query, one that pushed Pendleton to immerse himself back in to one of Shakespeare’s greatest history plays, Henry VI, Part 3 and unearth all the seeds of Richard’s destructive and detached nature. The construction he has dutifully created valiantly attempts to flesh out an understanding of the man who most see as the Shakespearean equivalent of a serial killer; emotionless in his murderous ways and blind to compassion. Encoded within that proceeding play, Shakespeare’s most famously wicked king reveals himself to be somewhat more damaged and innately human, creating a strong argument for detailed dissection and introspection. With Wars of the Roses, Pendleton and co-director Peter Bloch have brought forth a strongly formulated experiment. One that works more on an intellectual and educational level than a fully formed production. It rarely excels beyond the feeling of a staged reading for actors to learn from and debate into the night. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, but don’t go in to the small studio theater expecting more than a workshop, as I kept expecting a teacher to step in, at any one moment, and say, “That was pretty good, but let’s try it again with a little more heart“.
The stage is set with chairs assembled haphazardly on a black box stage. They are oddly facing forward like a ramshackle jury, when possibly an against the side wall configuration would have been less distracting and more intense. No one has been credited with set or scenic design, and that’s a relief, as it appears no one has placed much thought in Wars style or presentation. This sparse esthetic has been utilized most brilliantly in a number of diverse staging before, such as Sam Gold’s astounding Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie (with Sally Field) and the Public Theater’s brilliantly muddy Hamlet, but those creations feel thoughtful, while Wars of the Roses just feels like neglect. Project Runway‘s Maya Luz is credited with costume consultant, which sounds like a pretty clear distinction from designer, as the large cast is dressed in a wide variety of designs and periods. It works on a very basic level as it doesn’t add nor subtract from the proceedings, just like the lighting by Steve Wolf, even with the momentary black out that happened near the end of the three-hour production. Neither does anything to heighten or enliven, they both merely serve. It would have vastly improved the detailed work of the actors on stage had a bit of thought been placed beyond the obvious and straightforward, but in essence this tells you all you need to know about this presentation. It’s not a fully formed production, just a workshop, one where the actors have been given an opportunity to try on some roles in these two classic plays. In that way, it is a gift to these actors, letting them play and explore. For that, we and they can be grateful, because in general, the telling of this tragic tale is solid and intellectually stimulating, even as it lopsidedly moves unevenly through the history, almost as unsteady as Richard himself.
The cast is a multi-layered assortment, some fitting the visuals and requirements of the role, while others, not so much. Matt de Rogatis does a solid deconstruction of the murderous Richard III, although the origins of his destructive manner within Henry VI isn’t delicately well-grown or presented. Pendleton as Henry VI, shrugs and coughs his way towards his death, feeling more sickly and secondary than probably intended. Johanna Leister as Queen Elizabeth, Michael Villastrigo as King Edward, Debra Lass as Queen Margaret, and Greg Pragel as Buckingham create serious and solid ‘actor’s studio‘performances that facilitate the roles and the story, giving lovely moments of clarity and structure, but little out and out inventiveness. Part of the beauty of Shakespeare is the language and its depiction, but it also resides in the depth and layering of thoughts and symbolism. On that note, the direction fails to bring this presentation to anywhere beyond a no frills adaptation and obvious narrative structure.
Pete McElligott as Clarence, the young brother of Richard has a gloriously compelling voice that rings strongly above the crowd. His portrayal of the domed and betrayed brother is interesting, but didn’t seem to be operating from the same viewpoint of the rest of the squadron. His scene with the two murders, played well by John Constantine and Milton Elliott, is one of the highlights of Wars of the Roses, finding its sure footing within the humorous and smart word play even as the executioner’s blade hangs over the whole proceedings. I’d be very interested to see McElligott perform in another, but in a different and more thought-out production, as his style feels organic but didn’t quite mesh with the rest. The rest of the talent delivers to various degrees of success, enunciating the complicated text with great thought and solid diction, but lacking an overarching narrative and unique styling.
Richard III murders Henry VI in an act early on that is unnecessary but profound, mainly because the former King is already locked away in the tower and his attempt to hold on to the crown is over. But Richard III can’t see that clearly. He thinks that as long as he lives, the threat of the Lancaster faction rising up again will still haunt him. So killing the man, even as he obviously has no power or will, is the only thing he can do. Richard II loved his father, that is clear, and when his father, York, played concisely by Jim Broaddus, is brutally murdered at the hands of the Lancasters, Richard’s connection to humanity is cut. His mourning turns to outward anger and he disconnects himself from humanity. Within that severing, the killing spree begins, without a shred of remorse or empathy. With each murderous thrust, he prays that it will make him feel more secure with the crown and the power, but it only makes him more troubled and paranoid. It’s a great journey these acting professionals have created, and a testament to their knowledge of Shakespeare and these two complex history plays. Richard III doesn’t get to say his most famous line; “Now is the winter of our discontent” in this version, but he has other great moments and the story stays solidly intact. I only wish that a more thoughtful approach to the overall was illuminated and in place over these three hours, as there are some fine acting moments and thoughtful constructions. But as it stands, this is more of a working reading than a finished product; an exercise for actors to deconstruct and intellectualize. I’d love to see it restaged from a larger vantage point and an over arching dynamic that could bring this War of the Roses to a more complete finale.
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