Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Cal Shakes condenses 4 history plays into 4 hours

Foreground from left: Aldo Billingslea, Stacy Ross, Joseph Patrick O'Malley and Catherine Luedtke in "The War of the Roses." 

California Shakespeare Theater has launched the ambitious “The War of the Roses,” which combines Shakespeare’s “Henry VI” trilogy with “Richard III.”

Results of this collaboration between artistic director Eric Ting and dramaturg Philippa Kelly are mixed.

Condensing about 12 hours of historic drama into four hours means some characters and nuance are lost. Hence, it’s difficult to care much about most of the characters despite fine acting by some of the cast’s 14 members, who play varied roles.

The plots, especially in the “Henry VI” series, are complicated with numerous political machinations and murders in the power struggle between the red rose House of Lancaster and the white rose House of York.

Therefore, the program helps with a genealogical chart covering several generations plus a detailed plot summary. This information is available online for review beforehand, which is recommended.

Supertitles by sound and media designer Brendan Aanes introduce some settings and characters, helping with clarification.

Anchoring the production are Bay Area acting stalwarts like Stacy Ross (in male and female roles), Lance Gardner, Danny Scheie and Aldo Billingslea.

On the other hand, Aysan Celik as Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s queen, often becomes too shrill, especially during her lamentations in “Richard III.”

Ting’s direction is spot-on at times and off the mark in others. For example, Richard’s opening soliloquy, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” is almost drowned out by the screaming guitar of Josh Pollock, performing compositions by music director Byron Au Yong. The guitar intrudes on other scenes, too.

Danny Scheie takes the throne as Richard III.
In going against type, Ting has cast gifted comic actor Scheie as Richard III. For the most part, Scheie holds his trademark vocal mannerisms in check, but Ting has him unnecessarily using a handheld microphone for most scenes when he’s alone. Nor is there any apparent effort for Scheie to manifest the deformities that the text so vividly describes.

Nina Ball’s set is relatively simple, while Anna R. Oliver’s costumes are a mix of modern and medieval.

Fight director Dave Maier and choreographer Erika Chong Shuch stylize most fight scenes. Lighting by Jiyoun Chang works well except when banks of lights shine directly into the audience’s eyes.

The four-hour production has a five-minute pause during the Henry plays and a 15-minute intermission before “Richard III.”

It continues through Sept. 9 with another show Sept. 15 at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Highway 24), Orinda.

For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne