A well-designed set speaks to the themes of a play, and that’s certainly true of the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s production of “Henry VI, Part 2.” Eric Levenson has created a space defined by vertical wooden elements that brings to mind a stockade, or a cage. Both impressions are applicable: As the play unfolds, external political forces and roiling intrigue within his own court increasingly embattle the ineffectual monarch.
“Henry VI, Part 2” is the backbone of a quartet of Shakespeare’s histories that also includes “Henry VI, Part 1” and “Part 3,” as well as “Richard III.” There’s quite a lot of meat on the bones of this play, both in dramatic and comedic terms, and this is the chapter in the tetriad that leads directly into the commencement of the Wars of the Roses. (Both the text, which is full of references to white blossoms, and the set, which features two rose emblems, one red and one white, effectively foreshadow the wars to come.)
As the play begins, Henry (Jesse Hinson) becomes engaged to the French noblewoman Margaret of Anjou (Jennie Israel). But there are strings attached: Margaret's father, the King of France, reclaims a considerable amount of conquered territory as part of the bargain. Discontent among the English nobles at the loss of that territory — "two dukedoms worth" — sets a number of characters into treasonous action, each one of them pursuing his own agenda. Among them are a warrior cleric, Cardinal Beaufort (Steven Barkhimer), Margaret’s secret lover the Duke of Suffolk (Craig Mathers) and — most dangerous of all — the Duke of York (Nigel Gore), who views himself as the true heir to the throne and Henry as an usurper. Matters only worsen as England’s hold on France deteriorates, and rebellions in Ireland add further political pressure.
Henry is hardly up to the task of containing (or restraining) this cadre of ambitious noblemen and restoring order to the realm. He’s a wispy, pious young man, detached from the nasty politics of this fallen world and given over to celestial visions of holiness. As played by Hinson he comes across as shy, and more than a little anemic. (He also comes across as weak and mincing, which serves to undercut — rather than underscore — his devotional distractions.) However, once unleashed, the plots against him create such turmoil that even Henry is brought down to Earth by the cavalcade of horrors that results; when he finds his strength it’s too late to save his kingdom, but he does tap into a strain of regal anger that sparks his character into full-blooded life.
The other characters are vibrant and even frightening right out of the gate. Margaret is something of a femme fatale. Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester (Allyn Burrows), is not swept up in beatitudes, but he is a decent and truly noble man. As such, he’s instantly in the crosshairs of those who seek to bring down the king, and it’s his ambitious wife — Duchess Eleanor (Marya Lowry), a sort of Lady Macbeth-lite — who proves his Achilles’ heel. Eleanor is lured into participating in an act of sorcery that, as played here, runs chills up the backbone, thanks to Tina Packer’s direction, Daniel H. Jentzen’s dramatic lighting scheme and especially Steve Deptula’s sound design, which is rich and well-judged. (While we’re on the topic of the production’s auditory components, let me not forget to pay homage to Alexander Sovronsky’s Elizabethan-tinged musical score.)
Though there are humorous passages (such as a duel between a traitorous armorer and his apprentice), the play’s first half is unremittingly gripping, reminiscent of ASP’s thunderous, magnificent production of “The Coveted Crown” a few seasons back (a two-part presentation of “Henry IV, Part 1" and "Part 2” bookended with the final scene of “Richard II” and the beginning of “Henry V”).
Things slow down here considerably after the intermission, as is true of many Shakespeare plays. Also, the tone shifts from steadily mounting tension to a broadly comic depiction of popular discontent, with Burrows switching roles from Gloucester to a military officer and adherent of York named Jack Cade, an operative who further weakens Henry’s rule by stirring up the common people into a revolt at home. (Burrows, always wonderful, displays a comprehensive range between these two roles.)
Shakespeare depicts this episode of popular unrest in satirical terms — it’s this passage that gave us the slogan, "The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers" — but these scenes carry sinister overtones for the modern audience. The way Cade goads his followers to slaughter anyone with an education presages similar anti-intellectual campaigns, centuries later, in Cambodia and elsewhere. As played by ASP, these scenes feel like Monty Python sending up Fox News reportage of a Tea Party fantasia. Even York’s complicated diagramming of his family tree — the basis for his claim to Henry’s throne — garners a huge laugh, despite its almost Biblical "so-and-so begat such-and-such" dryness. (A flow chart in the back of the program breaks it all down for those who wish to keep track of the genealogical elements.)
That is due in large part to Nigel Gore’s performance, which is so evil, so forceful and so electric that Gore stands out even among a cast of outstanding performers. Even in the utterance of a name — his contemptuous, borderline-profane enunciation of “Suffolk,” or his sadistic and gleeful call to the Duke of Somerset (Ross MacDonald), a Henry supporter — Gore brings volumes of meaning, and of menace. He’s no shallow villain; his self-interest is extreme, but he also feels that he is in the right. Those nuances all come across, but even so the sight of York and his entourage — including son Richard, later to become the reviled Richard III (another role taken by Lowry) — feels like a glimpse at wickedness incarnate.
By the time the play reaches the climactic Battle of St. Albans and its cliffhanger ending, high-wire dramatic tension has once more replaced comic delirium. Upon exiting Suffolk's Modern Theatre after more than two and a half hours in this realm of political maneuvers and societal breakdown, you might not be sure whether you spent more time laughing or gasping with shock and suspense.
“Henry VI, Part 2” continues at the Modern Theatre through June 7.
Kilian Melloy has reviewed film and theater for a number of publications, including EDGE Boston and the Cambridge Chronicle. He is a member of the Boston Theater Critics Association and the Boston Online Film Critics Association.