Pigeon Creek sets Henry VI to music to enliven little-done Shakespeare
LANSING, Mich.–Shakespeare has his wildly popular plays that are performed over and over again—and then those rare few that almost never make the stage for many reasons, including that they aren’t as compelling as they used to be. So, when a theater undertakes one of those rarely done ones, they have to work hard to make it engaging.
It’s something that Pigeon Creek Shakespeare is good at. They’ve been doing a series of the Bard’s histories and this past week they opened their production of Henry VI, a play that almost feels transitional from the thematically rich and powerful “Henry V” and “Richard III.” In fact, in the Pigeon Creek production, it opens with England mourning King Henry V and it ends with Richard III giving his famous “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech.
A lot happens in “Henry VI,” which makes it lack some of the cohesiveness of other plays. Time-wise, it goes from the death of Henry V when Henry VI was nine months old to his death when he was five. Technically the play at Pigeon Creek combined three plays—Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3. As such, they had to do a lot of cutting, something that made the lengthy plays more palatable to an audience that didn’t learn the intricacies of British royal history and civil wars in grade school.
The emphasis on this production is on the War of the Roses and the political machinations that led to open warfare and civil war. The loss of French lands is summarized quickly and presented as part of the reason the English lords rebel. We get to meet Joan of Arc, but only at her downfall.
Director David Taylor Little does a lot to make sure the story is clear. Rose boutonnieres of red and white communicate who is on what side and add theatricality and drama to the telling of the history. He also added a lot of music, working with musical director and composer Scott Lange, who set a lot of the monologues to music that was sung by the ensemble or as solos. “Henry VI” became a play with music from the beginning to the very end.
Lange was listed as the Balladeer, the narrator of the story. However, there may have been some last minute cast changes in the show, because he ended up stepping in to play Richard—the eventual Duke of Gloucester who would eventually become Richard III. It was a role that was listed as “anonymous” in the program.
Whether that was the case or not, it was a testament to Lange’s skill and experience with Shakespeare that he performed the part as if he had been born to it. He went from warrior to hunchback as the battles took its toll on him. He also did a fine job as the balladeer, making the story engaging with his original compositions. He was also able to provide support to some of the other actors who struggled with the music.
Henry VI has a very large cast show with some principle characters dying early on—for Shakespeare was restrained by the actual historical events to at least some degree. Pigeon Creek did a lot of doubling, bringing people back multiple times in many different roles.
Two of the few people who did not double up were Riley Van Ess as Henry VI and Kathleen Bode as Margaret of Anjou.
Van Ess created a Henry VI who was weak and easily led, exactly what the script demanded. It’s something that can be a challenge—playing a weak character when surrounded by strong ones. Van Ess expressed through movement, vocal quality and facial expressions his frailty and his fears. Even his few bids at strength were snatched away from him by the stronger figures around him. Van Ess had an especially strong moment late in the play when he came out with a guitar and sang a grief-filled song about a regent’s responsibility to his people in times of war, surrounded by two commoners who killed where they did not mean to kill.
Bode was thrilling to watch as the princess who became queen, the power on the throne. Margaret, unlike her hapless husband, knew how to play the political games and didn’t hesitate to grab what she wanted, even if it meant leading forces into war. She was a force to be reckoned with and Bode played her with a strength and confidence. She put in a performance that showed how the cursing Margaret of Richard III became who she was in these three plays. Bode has a command of the language and establishes electric chemistry with others on stage.
Michael Dodge, who through the course of the play inhabited several roles, did an especially fine job as Humphrey, the Lord Protector. He showed how doomed it was in those times to be a man of virtue and honesty.
Scott Wright was the mirror image to Henry VI as Richard Plantagenet, he of the red rose who split first the court and then the realm. Wright had the right amount of bluster, masculine physicality and cunning to make him a worthy adversary to a weak king.
There were a few characters who stumbled with their lines, something made obvious because others delivered theirs with such confidence and the ensuing silence was awkward. It seemed those may have also been related to a last-minute cast change.
Pigeon Creek has taken on the challenge of combining three rarely done plays and creating a cohesive story that has something to say to modern audiences. With music and stagecraft, they’ve brought “Henry VI” to life in a compelling fashion and paved the way from the more familiar “Henry V” to the villainous “Richard III.”