Two years ago New York theatergoers had the opportunity to see Kings of War, Ivo Van Hove’s compilation of five Shakespearean history plays. Tracing the royal lineage of Henry V through Henry VI and ending with Richard III (with a few additional coronations in between), Van Hove’s four-hour-plus production was a grand, sweeping, and technologically sophisticated epic. Working on a much smaller scale, director, adaptor, and actor Austin Pendleton has created his own synthesis of the battles between the Houses of Lancaster and York for Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III, which is currently playing at the 124 Bank Street Theatre. A mashup of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III and running a mere three hours, Pendleton’s adaptation offers its fair share of both theatrical rewards and pitfalls.
Although Henry VI receives top billing in the play’s subtitle, the spotlight in Wars of the Roses shines directly on Richard III. There are certainly advantages in assembling and collating scenes from the two plays, and Pendleton’s version is at times illuminating. For instance, when Richard (Matt de Rogatis) first appears, he is with his father York (Jim Broaddus), and his two brothers, Edward (Michael Villastrigo) and Clarence (Pete McElligott). As the youngest of the three and with pronounced physical disabilities, youthful Richard seems an unlikely successor to the crown. As the scenes progress, however, Richard emerges from the background, and through deviousness and debased ingenuity his villainous aspirations are fulfilled—until they become his undoing. The dramatized backstory makes Richard’s rise and fall even more tantalizing.
Combining the two plays, though, has significant drawbacks. This adaptation begins when Henry (Pendleton) is nearly vanquished, and his wife and son have relegated him to the sidelines of the Plantagenet civil war. Therefore, while Richard’s arc is enhanced, Henry is reduced to a dithering cipher. In addition, the play ends prior to Richard’s defeat on the Bosworth battlefield—although he anticipates his demise with a panicked, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Lopping off the beginning of one self-contained play and the ending of another leaves the audience with the distinct feeling of arriving too late and leaving too early in the proceedings. (And, since some of the opening exposition from Richard III needed to be cut, Richard’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue has been excised—criminally, one might add.)
As Richard, de Rogatis mostly sneers and snarls his way through the role, but he has some nuanced moments as well. They are particularly evident when he wields Richard’s manufactured charm like a dagger. For instance, as the self-proclaimed villain, he is able to summon the appearance of brotherly love even as he is scheming to murder his way through the royal succession. He also gives a fine performance in one of Shakespeare’s most disturbing and fascinating scenes, in which he woos Lady Anne (in a subtle and winning performance by Rachel Marcus), whose husband and father were killed under his cunning manipulation.
Pendleton is almost too low-key as Henry, the weak and ineffectual king, and he nearly fades into the background. That said, Pendleton movingly and skillfully delivers Henry’s molehill monologue (“O God! methinks it were a happy life,/ To be no better than a homely swain”), in which the reluctant king considers how life might be if he had been born into a very different station.
Shakespeare’s women were no shrinking violets in the Wars of the Roses, and it comes across quite strongly in the performances under Pendleton’s direction. Johanna Leister is a steely Queen Elizabeth, wife of King Edward IV, who is a force of nature in her own right. Similarly, Debra Lass is a formidable Queen Margaret, Henry VI’s strong-willed wife. As the Duchess of York, Richard’s tough-as-nails mother, Carolyn Groves is excellent.
While distilling Richard III’s story to its essentials, Pendleton has eliminated most of the stage trappings as well. The scenic design (which is uncredited in the program) consists solely of several moveable chairs and a contrived throne with more than a dash of red velvet. The actors wear street clothing with occasional period references—Maya Luz served as the costume consultant—and Steve Wolf’s lighting unobtrusively sets the mood. The production does not offer a revelatory new perspective, but even at his most unadorned, Richard III is a mesmerizing creation.
Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III plays through Aug. 19 at the 124 Bank Street Theatre. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by visiting www.proveavillain.com.