Shakespearean companies have tried various approaches to producing the three parts of Henry VI, plays that are believed to have been written with the help of at least one collaborator. In 1963, Tantalus co-creators John Barton and Peter Hall combined the unwieldy trilogy with Richard III to make The Wars of the Roses for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it became a landmark theatrical event. Undaunted by scholars' common cries, Barton and Hall cut scores of characters and compressed pages of dialogue, with Barton adding some hundred or so connective lines of verse that were virtually indistinguishable from Shakespeare's; still, the production maintained Shakespeare's sense of proportion, emphasis and sweep. (Hall, who directed the project, suffered a breakdown during the course of rehearsals, a statement in itself about the demands of producing even a scaled-down version of the plays.)
Over the past three seasons, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival has mounted four of the eight dramas that make up Shakespeare's Wars of the Roses cycle, which begins with Richard II and ends with Richard III. Rather than slap together a Barton/Hall-style cutting of the Henry VI plays or, worse, subject patrons to an uncut three-night marathon, the CSF is covering that portion of the legend by performing the world premiere of Queen Margaret, a two-and-a-half-hour, moderately suspenseful pastiche that focuses on Henry VI's sometime wife and queen.
Dramatist Robert Potter (who is credited in the program as adaptor, not playwright) has assembled his study of Margaret from historical material, brief speeches from Richard III and excerpts from all three parts of Henry VI, beginning with the last few scenes of Part One, when the character of Margaret is first introduced. As directed by CSF regular Tom Markus, the production plays like a made-for-TV epic, complete with fight scenes, romantic tête-à-têtes, melodramatic intrigue and histrionic debates about patriotism and the rights of kings. (For the CSF in 1997, Markus staged a miniseries-like version of Troilus and Cressida that was set during the Civil War.) There are also plenty of eye-catching special effects, including flashpot explosions, theatrical fog and smoke, and a stunning array of costumes whose colors reflect the volatile atmosphere of the court of King Henry VI; he came to power as an infant when his father, the revered Henry V, suffered a premature, Kennedyesque death. The show is full of sights and sounds, including a spare set of crumbling faux-stone arches and colorful banners, evocative lighting and period songs that sometimes recall the music that Sir William Walton composed for Laurence Olivier's film, Henry V. (Joseph Varga designed the set, W. Alan Williams fashioned the costumes and CSF artistic director Richard M. Devin put together the lighting; all three designers turn in first-rate work that supports the play instead of overpowering it.)
Guest artist Gloria Biegler leads the company with her strong, detailed rendering of the title role; Margaret is a French noblewoman whose flirtatious ways initially make her seem as though she ought to be called the Naughty Au Pair d'Anjou. As the play unfolds, though, Biegler reveals her to be a woman of considerable depth and passion, especially when she decides to lead an army of Lancaster loyalists to quell an uprising by the Yorkist rebels. She opens a soulful window on the many tragedies that befall Margaret, from the loss of her paramour, Suffolk (competently portrayed by John Tessmer), to the horrific demise of her beloved son, Prince Edward (played with flair and confidence by Platt Middle School student Blake Stepan). And she displays a good sense of humor, as well, telling the combat-leery Henry that his army, as led by her, will probably be more effective if Henry doesn't stick around the battlefield and put a damper on everyone's morale.
As her hand-wringing husband, actor Richard Haratine is splendid indeed, though Potter has reduced his role to the point that it's occasionally two-dimensional. The versatile and likable Samuel Sandoe demonstrates why he's perfectly cast as the chorus, a character who provides background information and plays a couple of minor roles. Lars Tatom is a towering Duke of York, Erin Moon lends a wealth of humanity to the tiny role of Elizabeth Grey, Chuck Wilcox plumbs the complex depths of Henry's uncle and Lord Protector, Humphrey, and Chip Persons gives the show's most intriguing performance as Richard, the twitching tyrant-in-the-making who eventually becomes Richard III.
Too often, though, Potter diminishes the power of his source material by focusing almost exclusively on Margaret. Because most of Henry VI, Part One goes by the wayside, for instance, we're never introduced to that other famous female warrior in the chronicle, Joan de Pucelle (aka Joan of Arc), whose actions might remind the audience that Margaret isn't the only undervalued woman who takes up her country's cause -- especially when its leaders least respect her. Nor do we get a chance to meet, much less hear about, Lord Talbot and his son, John. In Shakespeare's original, the two English warriors die in each other's arms in an episode that foreshadows a crucial scene in Part Three, when a father discovers the body of his dead son on the battlefield and a son finds his dead father -- all while King Henry sits on a nearby hill and frets about bloodshed that he, of all people, feels powerless to prevent.
By cutting significant characters and shortening others' revelatory scenes, Potter changes and dilutes the context of Margaret's struggle -- which can be summed up as trying to "make it" in a man's world. Inexplicably, Potter cheapens Margaret's most famous speech, from Act IV, scene iv of Richard III, by using a few lines from it as an end-of-play send-off -- when the speech in question isn't a solitary play-ending valedictory but a penultimate indictment that, in Richard III, anyway, Margaret delivers in the presence of two women whose destinies mirror hers. And Potter mercilessly cuts Henry's most famous speech, "This battle fares like to the morning's war," a magnificent monologue that reveals much about the substance of Henry's character. Sure, he's "more given to prayer than worldly matters," but whittling down Henry's ruminations merely makes him sound like an idiot instead of a too-reflective sort who, since birth, has tragically relied on others -- including the Almighty -- to tell him what to do.
What's strange is that, by Potter's own admission, the great majority of Queen Margaret is lifted directly from Shakespeare's plays. So Potter is still asking the audience to view Margaret principally through the Bard's lens, which shows her as a catalyst and counterpoint to action -- not the central, heroic figure that Potter tries to make of her. By sticking with Shakespeare's basic storyline and treatment but altering both to emphasize Margaret, Potter has changed the focus of the plays without providing enough extra material to make Margaret the trilogy's leading character. Put another way, he's made a miniseries out of a TV show's supporting player -- a vibrant supporting player, to be sure -- while reducing the roles of the main characters and keeping the storyline, structure and dynamics intact. Which is sort of like giving Frasier his own series by watering down the other characters on Cheers and keeping the show set in a Boston bar.
If Potter were to add his own material -- especially some that illuminates Margaret's life before she marries Henry -- instead of distorting Shakespeare's trilogy, he might succeed in making Margaret into a heroic figure on a par with, say, the Bard's Richard II, Henry V or Richard III. As it is, she seems like a woman who, as she crawls toward banishment, has left too much unsaid. That might be a clever way to get the audience to see what happens to her next season in the CSF's planned production of Richard III, but it doesn't do enough to make Potter's brave attempt a compelling portrait.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.