Grace Pheiffer and Andy Curtiss in Henry the Sixth: The ContentionEven if you didn't know that Genesius Guild's Henry the Sixth: The Contention was an amalgamation of Shakespeare's Henry VI: Parts I and II - with Part III opening on July 17 - and didn't know that the production was directed and adapted by Guild founder Don Wooten, it's likely that your first glimpse at the program would be enough to intimidate you.

What you see, at least initially, are 29 names listed as portraying all manner of royalty, and those in service of royalty. (Granted, a few of the names are repeated, as several performers are double-cast, but it's still awfully impressive.) But then you realize you're only looking at the list of the show's English characters. Keep reading, and you'll see eight more names under the heading "French," nine more under "Servingmen and Soldiers," and 12 more covering the presentation's apprentices, pages, ladies-in-waiting, and the like.

All told, The Contention finds 34 performers enacting 58 roles. And right when you find yourself wondering just how epic this epic production will be, Executive Director Doug Tschopp takes the stage, and tells you that between this half of the Henry VI endeavor and next weekend's second half, the Guild will deliver "12 hours of theatre over two nights" ... although he doesn't tell you exactly how many of those hours remain intact. My God, you think. Are we going to be in Lincoln Park until 4 a.m.?

Actually, you'll only be there until 11 p.m., and Wooten's convergence of the Bard's first two Henry plays is filled with so many individual pleasures that even if 180 minutes sounds like a trial, you probably won't much notice the length. (Following the July 17-19 presentations of Henry VI: Part III, this production of The Contention will be staged once more on Saturday, July 25, with Part III being performed again on July 26.) Boasting grandly - and expectedly - magnificent costumes by the invaluable Ellen Dixon, some of the most impressive sound effects I've yet heard at a Guild show, and a raft of terrific portrayals, Sunday's outing was a frequently first-rate evening of theatre. In truth, though, I'd be looking forward to Part III more if I didn't have the nagging feeling that all of the trilogy's most interesting figures had already been bumped off.

Pat Flaherty and Bryan Woods in Henry the Sixth: The ContentionNot having previously read or seen the Henry plays, I can only imagine the difficulty in adapting parts one and two to fit a three-hour time frame. Yet to these inexperienced eyes and ears, Sunday night's Contention seemed a complicated yet gratifyingly lucid summation of the battles between England and France, the subsequent War of the Roses, and the internal struggles for control over England. Whenever a salient detail did escape me, I was positive that the fault was mine, and not Wooten's. (Somehow, I missed out on hearing about the death of Lord Talbot, played by Michael King, and spent the show's second half wondering where the actor went. There's a lot of information to take in here.) And even if you find yourself occasionally lost amidst the Byzantine complexities and Machiavellian intrigue, you'll no doubt be hooked by the interpretive skills and raw power of numerous actors here, who keep the story - or at least, their particular places in the story - fully comprehensible.

Based on the deserved exit applause she received, it's safe to guess that no character on Sunday captured the audience's attention, and gratitude, quite the way Maggie Woolley's Joan of Arc did. A 15th-Century ass-kicker with an indefatigable spirit to match, Woolley was robustly physical and vocally dynamic, and the crowd was alert to even her most throwaway gestures, as when she unconsciously whisked the hair from her face during a duel, or, with breathtaking self-confidence, kicked away a fallen combatant's sword. Woolley gave a blistering knockout of a performance, and The Contention couldn't help but lose some of its overall energy when she departed prior to the evening's intermission. (As Joan was dragged to the stake, damning her enemies with a vociferous anger to knock leaves off the park's trees, the woman sitting behind me whispered, "Oh, I liked her." Amen.)

There is, however, more than enough sterling work on display to make up for her absence. Michael King supplies a forceful, aggressively incensed Talbot, Pat Flaherty offers a marvelously pained and nuanced take on Duke Humphrey, and Bryan Woods - albeit somewhat oddly cast as Flaherty's uncle - is a suitably, enjoyably snide and untrustworthy Beaufort. (Frequent area performer Woods is coming dangerously close to being too-frequently employed as a sardonic, decadent bastard of the George Sanders variety, but for the time being, the characterization is still a potent one.) Andy Koski, meanwhile, gives an enormously entertaining performance as the devious Lord Suffolk. He's one of few in The Contention allowed to be as funny as he is focused - particularly during a battle-of-the-asides with Grace Pheiffer's Margaret - and his final scene in the production is an especially outstanding showcase for the actor's dramatic chops.

Jacob Lyon and Maggie Woolley rehearse a Henry the Sixth: The Contention fight scene with Michael KingYet in addition to providing inspiring contributions to the Henry saga, Woolley and these four men share something else in common: Their characters are no longer alive for Part III. Andy Curtiss' Henry VI is, though, and I can only hope the performer exudes more dramatic fire in its follow-up than he does in The Contention, because for the moment, his ruler is coming off as the perhaps the least intriguing title character in the entire Shakespeare canon. Curtiss' projection is just fine, but he moves rather stiffly, he's all but expressionless, and there's little emotion or shading behind his readings; it's too easy to forget he's even there.

Several of the ensemble members on Sunday were too hesitant in their deliveries, several stumbled too noticeably on their dialogue, and a few characters - among them Nicholas Lindell's Duke of Alencon, Timothy Miller's shepherd, and Adam Kuta's Peter Thump - were so floridly stylized (though admittedly fascinating) that I wasn't sure what to make of them. But it's the lack of a truly engaging central figure that marks this production's most disheartening shortcoming; it's not too late for the situation to improve, of course, but so far, Genesius Guild's ultra-ambitious offering is a Henry VI without a Henry VI.

Still, The Contention offers committed, excellent turns by the likes of Michael Braddy, Matt Moody, Earl Strupp, Doug Adkins, and others; Pheiffer, if slightly too obvious about Margaret's scheming, is a radiant, lip-smackingly nasty presence; and the production provides a number of enjoyable sword fights (choreographed by King) and vicious shouting matches - more than enough to merit a viewing, and to build anticipation for the upcoming weekend's Henry VI: Part III. Again, I haven't seen or read the play - is there any chance that Joan of Arc makes a cameo from beyond the grave?


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