Staff Writer Avery Baumel reviews an exceptional performance by the MFA Acting ‘24 Cohort.

Walking into the Theatre at Schapiro, the first thing you see is a long table, two buckets of roses, one red, one white, and a crown resting on top of it. If you’re sitting in the center of the audience, the crown appears directly between the two buckets, and a throne appears behind the crown. White sheets hang from the ceiling of the black box theater, with black curtains behind them that, enveloped in shadow, make the space feel endless.

Noise quickly becomes part of the pre-show ambiance, both the chatter of the audience and a series of thuds that seem like an accident until they become rhythmic, repetitive. Music starts playing, hushed. When the lights dim and the actors enter, it is almost seamless. We have already been in this world of war and suspense for some time.

This is Henry VI: Civil Wars, a production by the MFA Acting program at the School of the Arts, directed by Kathryn Walsh. It combines William Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, a tale of the Wars of the Roses in the late 15th century, into one two-and-a-half-hour performance. This reimagining is suspenseful, thrilling, and deeply thoughtful as it questions the nature of war, love, power, and familial ties.

The throne is central to the storyline: the play begins with the funeral of Henry V and quickly shifts to a world where Henry VI (Aaron J. Anderson, MFA ‘24), is king, but Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Zack Lopez Roa, MFA ‘24) believes himself the rightful heir, in a complicated history that requires a monologue with a family tree projected on the backdrop to follow. Growing tensions between Henry VI’s House of Lancaster and Richard’s House of York result in war, murder, and several successions to the throne. 

The first act is thoughtfully paced, splicing scenes of Lancaster-York tension (Roa and Sarah Chalfie, MFA ‘24, playing the Duke of Somerset of the House of Lancaster, trade perfectly timed sneers and side-eyes) with English-French battle scenes. Mid-scene, actors freeze, dramatic music plays, and lights dim, and we’re transported to the battlefield. Then, the actors unfreeze and we return to the court.

This choice juxtaposes literal and spoken violence and bridges the distance between petty tension and its consequences. On the battlefield, an English duke is captured by the French and forced to switch sides; a scene later, back in court, others bemoan his loss, but their internal conflict renders them almost incapable of finding a solution. Soon, though, the French are captured in turn, and the captivatingly persuasive Sabrina Victor, MFA ‘24, as Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), is burned at the stake.

After intermission, murder piles on murder (it is a Shakespearean tragedy, after all), the court and battlefield become one and the same, and new characters are introduced at a breakneck speed. It’s significantly harder to follow the plot, which isn’t helped by actors playing, in some cases, four parts in a single act; but they shift gait and mannerisms with ease. 

Henry VI, blinded by beauty, marries Margaret de Panjou (Veda Baldota, MFA ‘24) and in doing so cedes territory, the final straw that leads to all-out internal conflict; later, he bemoans his throne, and after being captured, appoints York his heir instead of his own son; then York’s sons come into play to stage a rebellion against Henry; tables and chairs are literally thrown across the theater in dramatic battles. If it sounds like chaos, it is; but here, chaos is fascinating, and so is evil. 

Roa’s cackles and descent into madness as he pursues the throne are fun to watch, and Baldota is chillingly heartless and regal in her long monologues. This cast was incredible from top to bottom. The stage-fighting (by fight director and professor Jacqueline Holloway and fight captain Mollee Barse, MFA ‘24, who plays several parts throughout the evening) is also impressive and almost dream-like, half in the dark, with smooth sequences. The costuming (Brynne Oster-Bainsson) is subtle, but effective, with close attention to detail; Margaret’s jewelry and the coordinated, but not overly matching, outfits for the Lancasters and Yorks stand out in memory. 

But it is the ending that is most interesting. Throughout the evening, any actor who is murdered (and there are many) rises in semi-darkness and drapes various objects over the literal throne on stage: white sheets from the ceiling, roses that symbolize their allegiance to Lancaster or York, ropes that tied their hands, necklaces they wore. The throne, first empty, slowly becomes so full that an actor at one point accidentally knocks a rose off of it. When, in the final scene, lights illuminate the throne in red, the symbolism is clear and stunning.

This was a joy to watch. Though the performance run has now concluded, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing this cohort before they graduate.

The MFA Acting (Cohort 2024) at the School of the Arts presented Henry VI: Civil Wars from October 4-7, 2023 at the Theatre @ Schapiro. See the School of the Arts website for the full cast and crew and for upcoming performances.

From left to right: Chalfie, Roberto Perez Kempton, MFA ‘24, and Roa via Stephon Phillip (@lifeofaprotege)