By Austin Yang
If only for the scarcity of productions of even one part of Henry VI, much less all three at the same time, watching NAATCO’s recent crack at it is already a rare privilege. This is understandable given the sheer difficulty of mounting the plays. Sandwiched between the infinitely more popular Henry V and Richard III, they are potentially long and tedious to unseasoned theatergoers, featuring a relentlessly large cast of characters audiences will struggle to keep track of, and a convoluted plot wherein these characters take many twists and turns, shedding allegiances as though changing shoes. Under Stephen Brown-Fried’s inspired direction, however, this company has taken these histories and brought out only their best elements.
The plays have been edited to reduce their cumulative runtime of 12 hours to a manageable 5 and a half, split between two parts, aptly named Foreign Wars and Civil Strife. Each member of the cast portrays multiple roles, and the direction reflects and accommodates this fluidity. Upon death, the actor rises, ghostlike, even as others around them mourn the spot where they died, and silently stalks offstage to adopt their next role. There is little to no issue of confusion as actors appear in multiple roles: Aside from ample context given during the scenes, the integrity of many of these roles were solidified by extremely memorable performances. Jon Norman Schneider’s timorous, almost effeminate Henry was nonetheless nuanced and evocative, and with his detached but heavy-hearted perspective of the conflict is an effective companion to the audience. Mia Katigbak was a dominating presence throughout Part 1 as the stalwart Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Maria Kakkar’s dramatic Margaret and Vanessa Kai’s icy, efficient Warwick emulate a similar influence throughout both parts. Sophia Skiles seems to bring power and punch to any role she touches, be it the chivalrous Bedford or the ambitious Eleanor Cobham. Wai Ching Ho’s Winchester was a formidable, bile-spitting menace like which the stage had never seen before, and a fitting foil to Katigbak’s Humphrey. Rajesh Bose, magnificently bearded, is larger-than-life as Richard, Duke of York. He, along with Paul Juhn’s Suffolk, has mastered the Shakespearean tradition of the scheming ambitious monologue following “exeunt all but _____.” Bose’s York is proud, cunning, and ultimately brought to a soul-rending end. David Huynh, as his son Richard (ultimately Richard III in the sequel), is satisfactorily sly, ruthless, and divorced from the world, with an angry bloodlust rivaled only by James Seol’s Clifford. This bloodlust, and the revenge it serves, are a tireless cycle and grim taskmaster in these conflict-laden histories. The list of strong and memorable performances goes on, even in regard to the walk-on roles, in which this talented and versatile ensemble shines.
And it is no less than necessary: The work of the actors and Brown-Fried’s condensation has greatly improved the pacing. Between that, and the brilliant work of the design team, the audience is kept constantly on its toes. Kimie Nishikawa’s set is simple yet versatile, with prop and set piece alike serving as many purposes as the actors. The red stage is strewn with black flakes, which are kicked up by the capes of actors as they stride past, creating a simple but indescribably poignant effect. Reza Behjat’s lighting utilizes angle and color to impressive effect, and Toby Algya marries the light with an apprehensive, sometimes percussive soundtrack that keeps stakes high and heart rates higher. And lastly, much of the larger-than-life presence the actors exhibit onstage is owed to Nicole Slaven’s costumes. Anachronistic and practical, with a dominant tone of black, they are perfectly in tune with the set and the story.
There’s something in this show for everyone! Truly, it mirrors Game Of Thrones in this bounty: It’s got action, romance, suspense, politics, intrigue, drama, and just a dash of comedy. Brown-Fried and the company have achieved something remarkable with their efforts.
That said, one thing often escapes notice. Everything that can be said about this production from a critical standpoint has been covered by multiple reviewers, but it’s worth noting that the significance of such a production comes no less from its technical and artistic merit than from the milestone it represents in diversity and representation. Already rare are the Henries, rarer still is seeing Shakespearean histories performed by an all-Asian cast, with the fluidity of the casting extending also to gender. This is not done out of necessity—truly, the roles for which strong, memorable performances were given could not have been better cast. This fluidity is the greatest marvel of Shakespeare and its enduring modernity, that the story can be that of whoever chooses to tell it. That Asians, with as much right as anyone to the story, are given this opportunity to tell it, is a celebration long overdue. This production of Henry VI and films like Crazy Rich Asians don’t simply push for more Asians in traditional roles, it gives us the most important reason for allowing said familiar stories to be told by all kinds of people: Presence breeds relatability. Sharing a face with someone onstage or onscreen is an extremely underrated component of sharing and relating to a story, and of making it one’s own. There were many things achieved by this company of Asians that couldn’t have been done by a different one, and there are things intrinsic to the work they’ve put out that are owed to their identities. That this is true of any unique assembly of artists should be ample reason for greater representation in the arts; to have those perspectives explored, to disinter those idiosyncratic intricacies.
And if not, then simply because the all-Asian company at NAATCO did a damn good job of Henry VI. The continuation of their tradition can only mean the best things for American theatre.
HENRY VI – by William Shakespeare, adapted by Stephen Brown-Fried | Director: Stephen Brown-Fried
WITH: Rajesh Bose, Ron Domingo, John D. Haggerty, Wai Ching Ho, David Huynh, Michelangelo Hyeon, Anna Ishida, Paul Juhn, Vanessa Kai, Mahira Kakkar, Mia Katigbak, Jon Norman Schneider, James Seol, David Shih, Sophia Skiles, Kim Wong
Set Design: Kimie Nishikawa | Lighting Design: Reza Behjat | Costume Design: Nicole Slaven | Sound Design: Toby Algya | Movement Directors: Orlando Pabotoy, Kimiye Corwin | Props Master: Ryo Tatsumi
Through September 8th.