Michael King has appeared in so many Genesius Guild productions, and has delivered such consistently outstanding performances, that it's easy to take the actor/director's copious talents for granted. Yet the experience of watching him as the scheming Richard III in the Guild's Henry the Sixth: Richard, Duke of York - the concluding half of director Don Wooten's two-part presentation of Henry plays - is so startling, exhilarating, and fresh that it's almost as though you're seeing the actor for the very first time. Stage work as profoundly inspired as King's is a night of unforgettable theatre unto itself. Then again, very little about this production isn't a thrill.
It's a shame that the Lincoln Park chairs and risers - and, let's face it, most audiences - aren't really built for five-and-a-half hours of sitting, as it would be quite something to see the 150 minutes of Duke of York directly preceded by the 180 minutes of Henry the Sixth: The Contention, Wooten's commingling of Henry VI: Part I and II. (The Guild, however, is offering the next best alternative. See postscript.) Because while this chapter, like The Contention, completely succeeds as a stand-alone entertainment, the show enriches your enjoyment of its predecessor so thoroughly that the two pieces end up feeling inseparable. Watching one part without the other would be like watching only half of Gone with the Wind. The plot would still make sense, and you'd still have a pretty great time, but man, what you'd be missing.
Andy Curtiss' portrayal of Henry VI, meanwhile, calls for a different metaphor: Watching him in The Contention without seeing its conclusion would be like watching a Superman movie if all you saw were the Clark Kent scenes. As we come to discover, Henry is no Superman. (Quite the opposite, actually.) But the emotional reticence and rigidity that I found so distracting in Curtiss' earlier Guild performance turn out to be part of the point of Duke of York; this is a character who's a secondary figure even in his own life story.
Caught in a brutal struggle for power and control amongst his potential heirs - with even his own wife (TeAnna Mirfield's Margaret) against him - Curtiss' king, here, comes off as less disengaged than helplessly, achingly resigned. Henry is wise enough to recognize that no good can possibly come from the increasingly violent wars for his throne, and Curtiss expresses that understanding in Duke of York with a haunted, alienated sadness that's enormously touching. You actually feel a surge of relief when Henry has his fateful encounter with Richard; this king has been so surrounded by sinister forces, and so vexed by the disapproval and duplicity of those he loves, that death seems a significant upgrade.
Not that, as an audience member, you'd want even one minute less of his adversaries. Along with my preemptive - and, admittedly, misguided - disappointment in Curtiss' portrayal, I made the mistake last week of presuming that all of the Henry plays' most compelling figures had been killed off in The Contention. Stupid, stupid me.
Queen Margaret emerges as an incensed warrior in Duke of York, and Mirfield gives a shatteringly confident, wildly exciting performance to match. You could feel the giddy charge that circulated amongst Sunday's patrons whenever she spoke. (And even when she didn't - the intensely focused Mirfield practically shot laser beams from her eyes.) Scott Naumann is an exquisitely reptilian Edward of York; his sneering, self-satisfied grins were the stuff of nightmares. And Jacob Lyon, after appearing slightly uncomfortable as The Contention's fey Dauphin of France, made for a gloriously vicious Clifford. An electrifyingly gifted dancer for Ballet Quad Cities, Lyon brought similar power and élan to his acting here, goading his enemies with insinuating slyness and dispatching young Rutland (Phillip Tunnicliff, offering a heart-piercing shriek) with monstrous ferocity.
Plus, there was Michael King, and I'm loath to describe too much about his soul-shaking excellence as the psychologically and physically twisted Richard, because I might just wind up repeating myself when/if the Guild lets him revisit the role in a future Richard III. (Pleasepleaseplease.) Henry the Sixth: Richard, Duke of York boasts marvelous performances by Michael Carron, Scott Tunnicliff, Nicholas Lindell (wonderfully funny), Bob Hanske, Earl Strupp, and Pat Flaherty, to name but a few of the show's 24-person cast. It's alive with magical staging, from the gorgeously composed palace tableaux to the frighteningly brusque on-stage executions. (It should go without saying that Ellen Dixon's costumes are Royal in every sense of the term.) But with King's sublimely decadent, terrifying, and darkly hilarious portrayal, Wooten has achieved the unthinkable with his Henry saga: He's delivered 330 minutes of theatre that leaves you dying for yet another sequel.
Parts I and II of Genesius Guild's presentation - Henry the Sixth: The Contention - will be performed on Saturday, July 25, at 8 p.m., with Henry the Sixth: Richard, Duke of York performed again at 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 26. For information, visit Genesius.org.