That Tragic History

The third and by far the most ambitious of the three plays offered by The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival has now been added to the line-up.  Directed by Artistic Director Devin Brain, the play is called Rose Mark’d Queen, a condensation (and we do mean condensed!) of five plays: Henry V, Henry VI (Part 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III, and provides the “blood” in the Festival’s tagline, “Blood, Love, and Fools.” As a director, Brain, who was the Co-Artistic Director of the challenging 2009-10 Yale Cabaret Season, knows the Cab space well and pitches his production to the qualities that can make Cab shows such involving—and at times alienating—experiences.  Brain’s grasp of the darker side of drama comes to the fore again.  Last summer, his show The Phoenix began as an adolescents’ fantasy world and ended in a devastating conflagration.  In the 2010-11 Season, he directed the ensemble piece Erebus and Terror in which we watched a shipful of plucky explorers succumb to madness and cannibalism.  Now he’s back with a play that illuminates the British monarchy of the Wars of the Roses period in the 15th century as a blood-boltered tale of bravery and betrayals, of back-stabbings and battles, of lusts and jests and thrusts at the vitals.  It’s stirring stuff.

And marvelously, memorably entertaining.

A lighter note is leant the proceedings by a brilliant conceit: we open with kids entertaining themselves with dolls and costumes and toy soldiers, playing dress-up as they take on the roles of the first wave, of many successive waves, of characters embroiled in dynastic succession—involving rival houses and wars with and for France.  It’s risky because we might want these kids to intrude upon the action to explain it for our benefit, or to make it silly for our amusement, and indeed they do throw a bit of foolery into the mix, but—and here the risk pays off—the unwavering force with which they speak the lines convinces the way a child lost in a fantasy convinces.  Gradually, the “play-acting” of the playing falls away and we’re launched into the clashing and contending personalities of the Histories.

For me the transition moment was when Matt Biagini, as Duke Humphrey, rails against the injustice of seeding prime French territories—already won with the blood of British troops—back to France in exchange for Margaret (Jillian Taylor), the “rose-mark’d queen” who the conniving Suffolk (A. Z. Kelsey) has wooed for young King Henry VI (Marcus Henderson), so that he may manipulate the king through her.  The love scene between Suffolk and Margaret packs a lot of punch too, but at that point (end of Henry VI, pt. 1)—with the other members of the court (i.e., the other kids) seeming to be looking on—it was still possible to be “in a game.”  When Gloucester goes rogue, at the opening of Henry VI, pt. 2, the playground struggle—White Rose vs. Red as a kind of Shirts and Skins game—deftly shifts into history come alive.

Don’t expect me to explain the historical consequences of all the ups and downs of the characters this intense ensemble enacts.  The playbill offers a useful Who’s Who—grace à Dramaturg Elliot Quick—coded to the costumes of the various characters, for those who want to keep score.  What stays with the viewer are numerous events that dramatize the high-stakes power struggle: Margaret’s cruel taunting of York (Babak Tafti) in the “king on a molehill” speech; York’s controlled and defiant response, wiping his tears on a handkerchief stained with his murdered child’s blood, ragging on the Queen; the rebel Jack Cade (Biagini armed with a toy chainsaw) enumerating the changes he will make in England as king (“first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”); Henry’s wistful longing for a simple life, and his heartfelt denigration of Richard (Kelsey) moments before being murdered by him.

Indeed, the fixed stars of this pole are Henry VI, as more sinned against than sinning, and Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, aka Richard Crookback, the vicious killer who will eventually become Richard III.  Whether Henry is too timid to swim in this pool of sharks or too noble to sully himself is a matter of interpretation—Henderson evokes noble caution, but Henry is simply never equal to the machinations going on around him. One reason for that is the unfaithfulness of his queen Margaret, who prefers Suffolk, and who wages fierce war against the forces of York, beyond what Henry would marshal on his own.  Taylor plays Margaret’s many moods with fire and ire, along the way creating a figure almost the equal of Lady Macbeth (who knew?), a woman with a naked lust for power who by the end seems distracted by the force of the enmity she has inspired.

As Suffolk, Kelsey is a lively and engaging conniver and it’s shrewd to bring him back, after Suffolk’s death, to play Richard—in a strait-jacket imprisoning his withered arm, a knife strapped to his back, and a length of chain for his lame foot—for then all the charisma of the Queen’s lover gets channeled into the Queen’s most bloody enemy.  Late in the play, a scene with Richard on a chair in the sandbox, upbraided roundly by Margaret at her wits’ end, quite wonderfully suggests the dark days, still to come, of Richard’s reign.

There are many fine effects in the production: dramatic shifts in lighting from raking to glaring (Alan C. Edwards); toy piano glissandos and rolling thunder throbs (Nathan A. Roberts); twin wardrobes, boasting white and red doors respectively, at either end of the space, that open for exits and entrances, but also become closets of shelves with props (Kristen Robinson); sumptuous robes (Mark Nagle) that help shape identity—with Margaret’s Superman cape an odd bit of humor, like the inflated doll, standing in for Widow Grey, that Edward (Tafti, unctuous at times as Vincent Price) woos with PG-13 levity.

To put it simply: you haven’t seen anything like Rose Mark’d Queen.  And once you have, you’ll want to see it again.

Rose Mark’d Queen adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI (Part 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III Directed by Devin Brain

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival July 7-August 13 Yale Cabaret