“The Contention” is a History Come to Exciting Life
The Contention, playing on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage at Shakespeare & Co., is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, and a bit of a hard sell. “You’re going to produce the middle play of a never produced Shakespeare History?!?” It is a difficult, challenging story, but it also turns out to be one of the more extravagant gifts to play lovers this summer, filled with great performances and dynamic staging. It is a revelatory feeling as if you’re discovering Shakespeare for the first time and there was this lost classic that has suddenly been discovered. You feel the adventure of creating new theater with the greatest dramatist who ever lived alongside this brilliant company.
Henry VI (the guileless David Bertoldi) was nine months old when he assumed the crown and he’s been playing catch up ever since, living in the shadow of his father, the beloved and venerated Henry V. When the play opens, it is discovered that he has traded off valuable French real estate to arrange his marriage to Margaret (the fierce and fine Tamara Hickey).
The gang’s all here in the opening scene: Suffolk (S&Co Artistic Director Allyn Burrows), who delivers Margaret, Gloucester (the genius actor Jonathan Epstein), who takes the greatest offense at the trade. His wife, the Duchess (a chameleonic Bella Merlin), York (a bluff and grieved Nigel Gore), Warwick (the commanding L. James), Cardinal (the expedient Jacob Ming-Trent) and the Somerset of Kenneth Ransom and playing a number of smaller parts, Austyn Williamson. This is the very deep bench of the Shakespeare & Company All Stars and to watch the machinations gear up to the start of the play gives you a giddy sense of expectation which is not disappointed as the bodies start to pile up and the heads are literally collected in a basket.
Over 2 hours and 45 minutes, these ten actors will play over 37 characters and take us from the Royal Palace to a satanic ritual in the woods, to the deck of a pirate ship, and to the battlefields of France. For almost three hours from the very first scene, it is easy to follow this story with all of its schemings and grasping for power. The fights are exciting by Violence Designer Martin Jason Asprey, and the action never pauses as one scene dovetails into the other, always pushing the story forward with an urgency and spirit of fun. It was collectively directed by the playhouse’s namesake, Tina Packer, with two Associate Directors, Kate Kohler Amory and Sheila Bandyopadhyay. The minimal but effective sets were designed by Sarah Edkins with versatile lighting by James McNamara. Costumes are always top-rate at S&Co, and this production is no exception. Designed by Kiki Smith and kept in a simple palette appropriate (I’m assuming) to the 15th century.
The actors are all exceptionally strong, and it’s impossible to pick favorites, although I was delighted to see James and Hickey from last season’s sparkling Much Ado alongside the company stalwarts Burrows, Epstein & Gore. Burrow’s Jack Cade is my favorite thing I’ve ever seen him do. It’s just a nasty, swinging shot of adrenaline more than halfway through the play that, along with Gore’s butcher, will give you more than a whiff of our own society’s breakdown on 1/6. Burrows also has a saucy seductive scene with Hickey’s Margaret. Bella Merlin does great character work and maybe has the broadest leap going from the swooping Duchess of Gloucester with her headscarf flying to her stripped-down shame at the gallows to the future Richard III.
The Contention arrives unexpectedly on the summer scene with very definite contemporary relevance, absolutely coursing with the hot blood of creativity and discovery. It’s a delicious feast of intrigue and theatrical invention.
The Contention plays at The Tina Packer Playhouse on the Shakespeare & Company grounds through 7/15. For tickets, please visit: www.shakespeare.org