Gentle King Henry VI, whose conciliatory wisdom made him a nice guy but a completely ineffective ruler, comes back to Off-Broadway Nov. 12, when the Joseph Papp Public Theatre's New York Shakespeare Festival will present William Shakespeare's history trilogy, Henry VI.
The three plays chronicle Henry's life, from his crowning at infancy to his marriage to formidable Frenchwoman Margaret (who chides his weakness), through the War of the Roses (1422-85), his imprisonment and murder at the hands of Richard of Gloucester -- who would become another, even more memorable Shakespeare protagonist, King Richard III. Scholars believe the first part to be the first play the Bard wrote.
Just as Off-Broadway's Theatre For A New Audience did in their Henry VI two years ago, director Karin Coonrod, and her collaborators on the text, John Dias and Henry Israel, are cutting and shaping the three plays into two evenings. Part I is titled The Edged Sword; Part II Black Storm. In the Coonrod staging, each evening will also be in two parts.
"I wasn't influenced by that production," Coonrod says of the New Audience Henry VI. "We were already in workshops by then, and besides, people tell me when I do a play, it's totally different from when other people do a play."
Asked how she will handle the criscrossing armies that dominate the first act, Coonrod responded, "I'm not interested in swordplay, it's the violations that count. It's about humans colliding. Talbot's left alone, and France falls, because the English have no solidarity amongst themselves. The play does cross back-and-forth between the English and the French, but I want to make the narrative simpler, clearer." The director is also deeply into in the production's spatial relations and design. "We're doing it in the Martinson [Theatre space at the Public]," she said, "which has never had a Shakespeare in it. But we're redoing the whole thing, changing it from a proscenium to having the audience on two sides with the space in the middle. The idea is to both celebrate and defy the room."
Although the text has 62 characters, Coonrod will stage the play -- as she did the workshop -- with only 10 actors: Fanni Green, Jan Leslie Harding (of Richard Foreman fame), Walker Jones, Boris McGiver, Patrick Morris, Tom Nelis, Angie Phillips, Steven Skybell, Mark Kenneth Smaltz and Graham Winton.
"I'm intentionally using few actors to really concentrate on the story and make it come alive," she said. "The ensemble's important because at the end, Richard says, `Now am I truly alone.' He's moved utterly apart from the fellowship of man."
As for Henry, Coonrod detects a saintliness in him. "Henry is conflicted but apolitical. Everyone else wants to be king, but Henry doesn't really want the crown. He's a philosopher king. Still, he's always human and has no use for a political image."
Exceptional intellect and excitement over the project radiate from the petite, bespectacled woman in a white striped polo shirt who meets me for our chat in a small downstairs theatre space at the Public. The 43-year-old director was chosen as a year-long residency at the Public Theatre in Sept. 1995 -- the year after she approached artistic producer Rosemarie Tichler about doing the Henry plays. March 1995 brought Coonrod's in-house workshop of the play, which ultimately led to the current staging.
Up to now, Karin Coonrod has been best known for her work as founder of the downtown theatre ensemble, Arden Party. Artistic director there since 1987, Coonrod has directed more than 20 productions, including The Chairs, King Lear, Emperor Of The Moon and Waiting For Godot. She's known for taking a very particular, often highly stylized approach.
Visually, Coonrod sees the first part of Henry as "medieval -- not in terms of the historicity of tangible elements, but in the crowdedness, the trappings. Act one has the most props -- a crown, a pillow -- and there are no exits. The ensemble sits in this enclosed space the entire time.
"I've been reading Octavio Paz," Coonrod said, "and he writes about `a constellation of blood.' So that made me think about constellations in a lot of ways. It's an ensemble play, so there are no "stars" in the piece. Plus, there's a point when chairs come down from the ceiling on long red ribbons, which represent bloodlines. The Plantaganets are one huge family, yet they start the war, and they end up killing themselves."
Being true to the moment is more important for Coonrod than historical accuracy, and she's not above risking anachronisms by mixing and matching historical weapons, so long as the story and narration are clear. "Henry VI," Coonrod is quoted as saying, "was written by a young man with a tremendous urgency to address his own time in history. It addresses the spirit of old and new -- the passing of time, the movement through space. There's a huge resonance one feels when you are at the end of something and you're looking back."
But are the actors prepared to make that leap? "Most of them are trained in Shakespeare," notes Coonrod. "Or they learned in workshop or from each other. George [C. Wolfe, artistic director of the Public Theatre] calls them `the Downtown All-Stars']."
Before heading up for a quick look at the Martinson, (which was overrun by carpenters and painters, but was, indeed, already configured to have a ramp-like center section), I asked Coonrod what new aspect of Henry VI has impressed her since the production began rehearsing in earnest a few weeks ago.
"I always loved the characters," Coonrod replied. "Their voices never cease to amaze me. And now I find every time there's a question, even during our ten days of tech, we're going back to the text continuously. And there are the words, whispering things into the actors' ears."
Part I of Henry VI, "The Edged Sword," opens Nov. 12; Part II opens Nov. 23, and both segments run to Dec. 29. There will be several opportunities to catch both parts on the same day. For tickets ($35/part) and information call (212) 260-2400.
-- By David Lefkowitz