History is a frantic muddle because it's made by desperate people operating in the midst of stress and woe. Consider that on Sunday, March 22, King Richard III lay in state at Leicester Cathedral 530 years after his death. At roughly the same time half a world away, Richard's bloody scheme to seize the throne of his brother was being set in motion onstage in St. Louis Shakespeare's gripping Blood Reigns: The War of the Roses. The world, she is a funny place.
This adaptation of William Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy is the creation of Michael B. Perkins, Robin Weatherall and Christopher Limber especially for St. Louis' Shakespeare's 30th season. Directed by Limber, Blood Reigns breaks down those three plays into their best bits and then smoothly knits them together to show how the noble families York and Lancaster battled each other for the ultimate prize — the throne of England, which was occupied by the pious and peaceful Henry VI. The Lancasters fought to keep Henry VI enthroned, while the Yorks pressed their claim to rule.
This struggle plays out on a checkerboard pattern (an actual game of thrones), with wooden scaffolds serving as the necessary castle walls and royal platforms. Charcoal drawings of castles, churches and rooftops hang on the backdrop — it's an evocative and visually interesting design by Kyra Bishop.
The large cast of 23 players make good use of it as they scheme and fight and betray each other across three-plus hours (there are two intermissions). Act One establishes Henry VI (Jeff Loyd) as an ineffective king who allows France to slip out from under England's boot, which causes a serious cash-flow issue in the kingdom and a loss of morale among the people. This is the tipping point for the Richard, the Duke of York (Maxwell Knocke), who has a better claim to the throne than Henry (whose grandfather was a usurper), and the War of the Roses kicks off.
Loyd plays Henry as a ruler who will do anything to forestall further violence, which he abhors. In his wonderfully quiet soliloquy, Henry muses how much happier he'd be if he had been born a shepherd. Loyd doesn't have as much stage time as you might think, but he makes a lasting impression as a man of peace made dolorous by this endless war. There is a running theme of fathers and sons dying in each other's arms. In the third act, a father discovers he's killed his own son in the fog of war; on the other side of the stage, a son discovers his dead foe is his father. Henry watches from above, and Loyd's anguished face shows utter defeat.
Teresa Doggett gives Warwick the kingmaker a strutting confidence; he's as ready to fight as he he is to scheme, and her Warwick does both with brash ease. Her foil and eventual ally is Queen Margaret (Maggie Wininger), Henry's wife and the backbone of his reign. Wininger is a viper when Margaret's angry — which is often — but a delightful coquette as she falls in love with the Duke of Suffolk (Ben Ritchie, also good).
As for that great villain, Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III), Andrew Bayer gives him the infamous limp and withered arm as well as a black-hole heart. Conniving and cunning, his Richard sees his own brothers as mere obstacles to his ambition. It's a hungry, gnawing performance that will have you eager for the company's next production of Richard III (please).
Blood Reigns is a complex, intricate story that is slightly opaque to a modern audience going in cold. Many in the audience were puzzling it out with their neighbors during the first intermission, but it gets easier as it goes on (mostly because characters are dropping like flies). It is a rich and exhilarating experience that captures the best of what both Shakespeare and St. Louis Shakespeare can do — drama and spectacle that illuminate the intricate byways of the human heart. Here's to the next 30 years.
Blood Reigns: The War of the Roses Through March 29 at DeSmet Jesuit High School's Hunter Theatre (233 North New Ballas Road, Creve Coeur). Call 314-361-5664 or click here. $15 to $20.