Pointed Political Parallels in an Off-Broadway ‘Henry VI’

The National Asian American Theatre Company offers a superb, affecting and timely adaptation.

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James Seol, John D. Haggerty, Rajesh Bose and Mahira Kakkar in "Henry VI." Photos: William P. Steele.

In Stephen Brown-Fried’s elegant new two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy for Off-Broadway’s National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), we don’t have to reach very far for present-day parallels. In this parable of power accented by gender-blind casting, a longstanding foreign war, and partisan politics inflamed by weak leaders, throw us into a world that is careening out of control.

It begins when the death of King Henry V leaves his infant son as heir. As a nation mourns, political camps vie for power, holding discussions of legacy, treason and service to the crown. As Henry VI grows older, the court is challenged to find him a bride. Who, among his protectors, counselors and advisers, will willingly hand over their power-by-proxy? Who will fight to assume power?

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Jon Norman Schneider as Henry VI.

Among the women who splendidly assume male roles, Vanessa Kai takes on the Earl of Warwick, Anna Ishida the Duke of Somerset, Kim Wong the Duke of Buckingham and the Earl of Rutland, and Mia Katigbak is both embracing and terrifying as the ambitious Duke of Gloucester. The end effect is superb: we focus on the power held by the characters, not the anatomy of their players. Among the men playing male roles, perhaps ironically, we can observe multiple versions of maleness. At one extreme is Jon Norman’s Schneider’s gentle and thoughtful Henry VI, evoking a shielded scholar more than a soldier, a soul never quite suited to the crown he acquired as an infant. At the other extreme is Rajesh Bose’s Duke of York, who challenges the lineage of Henry VI, and therefore his legitimacy, through subterfuge and humor as he attempts to establish an alternative claim to the throne. When the charismatic Bose assembles a disaffected rabble and a member of the mob calls out the famous line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” the parallels to contemporary politics comes to the fore.

Two female characters are also among the highlights of the production. Kim Wong’s Joan of Arc shines with clarity and power before she is dispatched early in Act 2 of Part 1. Wong’s Joan is human, a mixture of fervor and bravery, and we miss her when she’s gone. Nicole Slaven’s costumes for Joan are marvelous, from overalls to leather-look battle gear.

Paul Juhn, David Huynh, Anna Ishida, Mia Katigbak, Michelangelo Hyeon, Vanessa Kai and John D. Haggerty.

And Mahira Kakkar is stunning as Margaret, Henry VI’s queen, who comes to court dowry-less and grows into a self-assured consort who defends her bookish husband from the advisors who continue to exert their power long after the king reaches his majority. Kakkar is eminently watchable as Margaret helps Henry to find his ruling voice and then assumes her own historical role as queen and warrior. We believe her as a barely audible young woman; we fear for her when she falls for the Duke of Suffolk (the stalwart Paul Juhn); we tremble at her fierceness in battle.

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Kimie Nishikawa’s set of rough-hewn elements connotes various communities of a world deep in civil war. It’s a world of vivid color (red floor, black walls) and vivid imagination: a box serves as a coffin, a table, a podium, and a flowerbed of symbolic red and white roses. Wooden plinths wrapped in rope evoke a dock when grouped together and weapons when held individually. In an act of particularly well-done storytelling, rope-wrapped “heads” atop these plinths represent the human heads of foes.

Two staircases on wheels serve as walls to scale, with hiding places beneath and ramparts above. Deep into the performance, a soldier searches under one of these staircases for a young man in hiding; you can smell the terror arising from the Bard’s dialogue. As these staircases are positioned and repositioned — loudly by intention — lumbering wheels and attached machinery echo a rudely mechanized world of war and empire.

Reza Behjat’s lighting uses tube lights and playful geometry to form dotted lines overhead, each illuminated differently as the political alliances in the play wax and wane; side lights create other delicious effects through stage fog. Toby Algya’s sound design provides a throbbing drumbeat of battle scenes as well as a sense of the splendor of the court.

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Slaven’s splendid costumes are also used to provide narrative clues. White fabric roses pinned to ever-present war gear help us to keep political factions straight. It’s also quite fascinating how Henry’s line, “Civil dissension is a viperous worm that gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth,” falls on deaf ears. It resonates potently for us in the audience, but the characters who needed to hear his speech most are dead by the end of the play.

Fight scenes by the credited movement directors, Orlando Pabotoy and Kimiye Corwin, are also key to the success of this beautiful pair of plays. In stylized, slow-motion dance sequences, actors rise slowly after their characters die, underscoring the vast body count and cost of each political move. From the battlefield to the bed chamber to the royal court, we are never allowed to settle into any kind of realistic world.