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Henry VI (NAATCO)

Shakespeare’s historical trilogy has been creatively reimagined as two parts in this spectacular production performed by an excellent, mostly Asian cast.

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John D. Haggerty, Anna Ishida and Jon Norman Schneider in a scene from NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company)’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Photo credit: William P. Steele)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

William Shakespeare’s 1400’s set Henry VI trilogy is rarely performed and this inventive and spectacular two-part adaptation playing in repertory demonstrates why. It’s a turgid series of choppy brief scenes crammed with dozens of characters with only a nominal central protagonist that even streamlined lasts for close to six hours.

Presented by NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company), it has an excellent all-Asian cast of 16, several of whom play roles of opposite genders. Creatively conceived by Stephen Brown-Fried and superbly directed by him, his Orson Welles-like vision transcends the difficult material. This sterling production is also an inspired example of American actors succeeding at Shakespeare, an author the British are more like to excel at.

Part I: Foreign Wars is taken up with battles in France where Joan of Arc appears, English court intrigue, messengers delivering dispatches, Henry VI’s marriage to Queen Margaret, rebellion in Ireland, Richard the Duke of York’s plotting, and the contrived downfall of the resolute Duke of Gloucester that results in civil unrest. There are also a few expository speeches that go into genealogy in an attempt to identify the plethora of nobles and explain their convoluted claims regarding the royal line of succession.

David Huynh, Wai Ching Ho, Paul Juhn, James Seol, Anna Ishida, Mia Katigbak and Vanessa Kai in a scene from NAATCO’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Photo credit: William P. Steele)

Part II: Civil Strife is filled with movement directors Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin’s striking Akira Kurosawa-type stylized beheadings and swordfights as the War of the Roses between the Houses of Lancaster (red) and York (white) for control of the English throne intensifies. The Duke of York’s power plays continue, there are riots as the usurper Mortimer attempts a grab and the deformed future Richard III begins his ascent. The famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” is uttered.

The red floor of the airy rectangular playing area is atmospherically strewn with clumps of thick charcoal-colored confetti. Scenic designer Kimie

Nishikawa also employs wheeled wooden platforms with ladders, black wooden benches and a coffin on wheels to great effect. It’s all a visually fluid landscape that serves as a multitude of locales.

A stunning fashion show embodying the past, present and future best describes costume designer Nicole Slaven’s colossal achievement.  Ms. Slaven’s numerous garments particularize each character with lavish flair. Combat boots, Matrix– looking black robes, camouflage patterns and splashes of red and beige abound. The King and Queen of France are clothed in blue and brocade that authentically suggest the period. Slaven’s amazing work is integral to the production’s success.

David Huynh, David Shih and James Seol in a scene from NAATCO’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Photo credit: William P. Steele)

Fluorescent tubes in the ceiling and dotting the stage’s walls, strobes, bursts of brightness and dramatic dimness are the tools of Reza Behjat’s dynamic lighting design. Blaring trumpets, roaring electronic music and clanging weaponry are thunderously rendered by sound designer Toby Algya.

All of these exquisite technical elements are orchestrated by Mr. Brown-Fried into an exciting presentation. Brown-Fried’s breakneck pacing has the cast constantly entering, exiting, in slow motion, frozen and placed with precision. He also obtains uniformly vivid performances from them and the semblance that they are a unified company.

The soft-spoken Jon Norman Schneider is majestic in the title role, capturing the sensitiveness and mental waywardness of that tragically flawed ruler. Imperiously gliding around in a clerical robe and a red hat, Wai Ching Ho is awesome as the wily Bishop of Winchester. Her innate idiosyncrasies and channeling Judith Anderson’s icy grandeur makes Ms. Ho’s characterization riveting. Ever ubiquitous on New York City stages is Mia Katigbak, richly bringing dignity, serenity and pathos to the part of the upright Duke of Gloucester with her crisp vocal tones and stately bearing.

John D. Haggerty, Vanessa Kai, Ron Domingo, James Seol, Anna Ishida, David Huynh and David Shih in a scene from NAATCO’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (Photo credit: William P. Steele)

The bearded and burly Rajesh Bose’s Duke of York is a charismatic take on a fearless conniver. As the scheming Queen Margaret, the alluring Mahira Kakkar is delightfully vicious. The later Richard III is among David Huynh’s numerous parts and having a hump on his back and suggesting a withered arm combined with his sensual forcefulness makes it a grand turn.

The rest of the outstanding ensemble is comprised of Ron Domingo, John D. Haggerty, Michelangelo Hyeon, Anna Ishida, Paul Juhn, Vanessa Kai, James Seol, David Shih, Sophia Skiles and Kim Wong.

On the theater’s lobby wall is a family tree chart illustrating the large number of historical personages and their connections that are depicted in Shakespeare’s epic. One could pore over this and try to retain all of the data or one could just figure it out while experiencing this Henry VI’s thrilling pageantry.

Henry VI (through September 8, 2018)

Performed in repertory as Part I: Foreign Wars & Part II: Civil Strife

NAATCO (National Asian American Theatre Company)

The Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres

502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.naatco.org

Running times: Part I (three hours with one intermission)

Part II (two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission)

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (562 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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