By James Foritano
Boston – While at first, it sounds like a title giving the audience only half a title to something complex that’s already begun, take heart — “Henry VI, Part 2,” presented by the Actor’s Shakespeare Project in the intimate venue of downtown Boston’s Modern Theatre, and, not least, with Shakespeare’s consummate sense of theater, attendees do experience a part of the torrid, literally break-neck action from the first.
We enter as Henry VI and his new French bride, Margaret of Anjou, embrace passionately in the hope of all newly weds finding a partner to love and dream with. More of that later.
The enabler of this dynastic union, the noble Suffolk, kneels to the king’s impetuous sword and is raised to a duke, thereby becoming known to those courtiers who love to hate him — which is nearly everyone, as Suf-Fuck. This moniker gives you some understanding of the temper of Henry VI’s court — at its most diplomatic.
But, you really have to be there. It’s not only the language, but the looks that ‘speak daggers.’ Everyone highly placed, up to and including Henry’s supposed helpmeet Margaret of Anjou, dreams of being even more highly placed.
The houses of the White Rose and the Red Rose, two competing dynasties for a nation-state freshly on the make, are certainly not ‘a rose by any other name’ to their jealous blood members and fierce adherents.
Despite the pious Henry’s longing for a peaceful, even loving, resolution of England’s divided powers, the wolves are circling in the order of might and wiliness.
Whether suited up in the flaming crimson of a cardinal, the buckler and sword of a warrior or the sweet looks of a new bride, intriguing brains plot the demise of the next highest head to stick above the crowd. They’ll make an alliance of convenience even with those they fully intend to eliminate later on, or maybe just coddle with poisoned promises.
Projecting dramatically such nuances of ambition like murderous lust, as well as comparatively merciful but constant temptation to injure, to sideline a perceived competitor once and for all, is challenging. And the ASP acting is up to every mercurial shift of the action.
Connoisseurs of deadly intrigue, as we’ve all become just by reading the day’s news, will blush with delight and horror at seeing such a perfect depiction of human hopes meeting human treachery.
Only a few talents such as Shakespeare are able to go further inward to make visible in a person’s own breast the struggle between high hopes and the treacherous subversion of those hopes.
Cardinal Beaufort, played by Steven Barkhimer, goes mad, sickens and dies at the hand of his own murderously divided loyalties. But he’s no warning to other driven players, just a loser.
Allyn Burrows’ Duke of Gloucester is genuinely loyal and loving in his office of Protector of the Realm, but even he seems tempted by the schemes of his wife Duchess Eleanor, played to the hilt by Marya Lowry, for yet higher position.
And Jesse Hinson’s King Henry VI is both strongly pious and deeply in need of direction. Without self-knowledge or even a scintilla of political savvy, he’s a king without a throne.
The second act of this tragic history of king and country is a dark and trenchant satire. The rampant self-love and lust for power of the governing class evolves into an anarchy of destruction when disenfranchised commoners loose armies on both their ‘betters’ and themselves. Allyn Burrow’s ‘Cade,’ the peasant leader, is both a figure out of a medieval vision of the Apocalypse and an unsettlingly familiar likeness of the destroying angels of our own times.
Powerfully eloquent in its exploration of our human estate, “Henry VI, Part 2” plumbs character and community with a scalpel and a skewer, by turns wounding to cry yet also tickling to leave theatergoers to laugh out loud.
(The Shakespeare Actors’ Projects presentation of “Henry VI, Part 2” continues through June 6 at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, 525 Washington St., Boston, Mass. Show are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, at 3 and 8 p.m. on Saturday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit actorsshakespeareproject.org.)