Cal Shakes goes epic with 'The War of the Roses'

I’ve thought a great deal about Cal Shake’s production of The War of the Roses (a four-hour epic mash up of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III) under artistic director Eric Ting’s direction, working from a deft cut of the plays sliced and diced together by Ting and Cal Shake’s dramaturge, Phillipa Kelly.

A synopsis of the action would take weeks and hardly worth my energy or your attention. Better just to say that Henry the 5th dies and political problems ensue—Henry the 6th is young, weak, and religious; his advisors untrustworthy; his wife, Margaret, French; and no one seems committed to the stability of the state, only to power. Oh, and Joan of Arc’s in France talking to God and receiving heavenly missives on battlefield strategy.

That it all ends with the deformed Duke of Gloucester going on a killing spree, becoming King Richard the 3rd, and losing his kingdom so fast and painfully that he’d trade it all away for a horse is just the way you expect history to go, or fall, or whatever history does when it’s finished. If Ting means this to be a comment on our times, well, duly noted, America’s future looks about as bright as England’s bloody past.

What does shine bright, though, is how this flawed, four-hour journey into political mayhem hints at and kind of achieves some of the nervy, assaultive flair of continental auteurs such as Thomas Ostermeier or Ivo van Hove. I can’t remember a production with so much go-for-broke acting on the Cal Shakes stage, or really any of the major Bay Area stages.

Jomar Tagatac’s rips through the Duke of York’s speech on royal genealogy and why he should be king with the bravado of the slyest rapper of 15th century England; when Stacey’s Ross’s Edward the 4th takes the throne she plays him as if he’s about to break out into song—the smile Ross concocts for the newly crowned Edward is one of tremendous relief, physical discomfort, and more than a touch of mental illness.

Aysan Celik’s Queen Margaret taunts the Duke of York with a napkin stained with the blood of his son Rutland. Celik’s ability to mix fury and enjoyment is a chilling reminder of what a kick it is to destroy your enemy’s dreams, especially if it involves killing off young descendants. Or conversely the way Lance Gardner’s Earl of Suffolk reaches his hand out to Margaret in a coda at the end of the evening, a touch of gentleness that Gardner makes us believe is as innate to Suffolk as his brutal political machinations.

None of these complex portrayals happen in a vacuum. Ting has an affinity for the staging techniques of Bertolt Brecht, the most Shakespearean of the great 20th century theater artists, and one who prizes both complexity and clarity. That combination gives Brecht’s work a moral focus and you can sense Ting’s War of the Roses moving in that direction.

This is a production that attempts to capture what it feels like to create history, rather than merely attempt to tell a story from history. The difference is crucial. The heedless, headlong quality of the acting has the mania of actual life—these people have no idea what’s going to happen moment to moment and so we believe along with them that they are free to shape the world to their desires. But of course for every one on stage it’s already over, the story’s done, and all that remains is the lesson.

Ting understands the ways in which Shakespeare’s history plays are full of these strange tensions between free play and fixed, historical fate. He and Joseph Patrick O’Malley give us a Henry the 6th who we can see is a victim of political forces he neither understands nor controls. Everything he does is a mistake and yet O’Malley plays Henry as if his every move will redeem both him and his kingship. It’s a beautifully calibrated and painful performance.

So we have a production of striking ambitions and real verve and yet we only get glimpses of brilliance and by the end the whole piece falters in ways that lesser productions might not and the question is why.

One problem is that the brilliance of the acting is predicated on the ensemble, which is as it should be. It’s hard to think of a recent production in the Bay Area where there are so many moments of real communication between characters. Or maybe better put, the cast is paying attention to each other. Yet for all that great acting there are too many weak spots, moments that are just too individual and showy. And you notice it, because the contrast is striking. In a lesser production, we might not even pay attention. So strangely, what’s terrific about the acting makes what’s not even more damaging. This doesn’t seem a fair criticism, but it’s true. In a production with these ambitions everything counts.

And that includes the fight choreography. I’d like to write a long piece about how bad most fight choreography is in the Bay Area, but not now. For the moment, it’s enough to say that for all the imagination and dramatic force displayed in Ting’s War of the Roses, seventy-one point five percent of the fight choreography is impossible to watch. That matters, too.

But the biggest problem in this terrific production is the way Richard III plays after Ting and Kelly’s lean cut of the three Henry VI plays. In this War of the Roses, the penultimate play feels more of an after thought than a culmination, and the same goes for the talented Danny Scheie’s Richard.

In the Henry VI plays, Scheie’s Richard is serpentine, a crazed though logical extension of the world before us; whereas in Richard III his actions seem distanced, at a remove from everything around him. It’s as if Scheie lost track of his fellow cast members. Whatever the case, the production starts to drift, feel less necessary, and more perfunctory. It’s not the worst criticism to say that it becomes merely enjoyable. Though that’s too bad, because for a couple of hours enjoyment was the least of many pleasures.

But forget my criticisms and go. It’s an exceptional production.

‘The War of the Roses’ runs September 15 at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information click here.