Traffic noise and the patter of light rain last night didn’t dampen the spirits of the warring Yorks and Lancasters in The Drilling Company’s sturdy Shakespeare in the Parking Lot production of Henry VI Part 3.
The troupe plays Shakespeare’s War of the Roses account straight for the most part. Somewhat abridged but with the language intact, the script recounts the violent political tug-of-war between the Lancaster faction under the indecisive Henry VI (a highly focused, inward-directed performance by Skyler Gallun) and the York branch, led first by Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of York (a mournful, stately turn by Drilling Company veteran Bill Green) and then, after his assassination, by his son Edward, played by Lee Seymour, who seems born to fire off the Bard’s poetic language.
As so often with Shakespeare, a drama of centuries past reminds us of our own times. The production doesn’t need the American flags draped over the dead, or the singing of “God Bless America” – though they are nice touches – to remind us of today’s wrenching, if considerably less bloody, political divide in the U.S.
The play also boasts one of Shakespeare’s strongest female characters in Queen Margaret (a compelling turn by Evangeline Fontaine), not only powerful in personality and will, but an actual warrior, leading the Lancaster forces to battle after Henry agrees to a limp compromise she cannot abide.
Many of the play’s most memorable scenes make solid impacts in this well-staged production directed by Hamilton Clancy. Fontaine makes a living, pulsing thing of Margaret’s cruel offer to the Duke of a cloth stained with his slain youngest son’s blood. Bryce Dutton and Una Clancy weave a stunning tapestry of woe in the scene where a son discovers he has killed his father in battle and a father learns he has slain his son. Warwick (a strong Kyle Maxwell) and Clifford (an especially livid performance by Bradford D. Frost) are fiery opposing capos in an all-around excellent cast.
The staging, in an outdoor parking lot on the Lower East Side as the sun goes down, poses some challenges. Banished from the battlefield by his impatient wife and son, King Henry delivers a famous poetic speech wishing he could trade the burdens of leadership for the life of a humble country lad: “Oh God! methinks it were a happy life / To be no better than a homely swain” peacefully counting the hours and minutes on a sundial. But in the open air, without artificial amplification, some of the impact is lost in Gallun’s soft-spoken delivery. Likewise Frost in his second role, of the King of France, doesn’t project enough sound or personality, in contrast to his superb Clifford.
On the technical side, once the sun goes down, small stadium-style lights illuminate the “stage” but also shine in the eyes of audience members trying to glean the expressions on actors’ faces. On the performance side, I was put off a bit by Alessandro Colla’s explosive Richard, Duke of Gloucester and future King Richard III. While entertainingly campy, he felt shoehorned in from a wackier production.
As a whole, though, the production easily surmounts these obstacles. This is lively full-strength Shakespeare, a dizzying story of changing fortunes and changing sides, loyalty and betrayal, weakness and strength, war and more war, with only small and hesitant hopes for peace – and all made easy to follow and admire, a testament to the skills and talent of the Drilling Company cast and crew. Henry VI Part 3 runs through 12 August at the parking lot behind the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, 114 Norfolk Street, Manhattan. It runs two hours, and tickets are free.