Wars of the Roses

By William Shakespeare; Directed by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch
Produced by Ruth Stage

Off Off Broadway, Classic 
Runs through 8.19.18
124 Bank Street Theater at HB Studio, 124 Bank Street

by Dan Rubins on 8.4.18

Wars of the RosesMatt de Rogatis and Austin Pendleton in Wars of the Roses. Photo by Chris Loupos.

Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III combined in an epic but lackluster production.

At just about the three-hour mark in Wars of the Roses, Austin Pendleton’s still-hefty edit of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III, all the lights unexpectedly went out. As the audience and actors remained in total darkness for a few moments, someone behind me whispered, "It’s Shakespeare’s spirit." I’m not sure if Will's ghost had anything to do with that technical glitch (swiftly resolved), but I wished Shakespeare’s spirit—in all its slyness, wryness, and indomitable energy—had been around for more of this ambitious but rambling epic.

There’s lots of Richard III that makes more sense when partnered with the earlier Henry play, which ends with the ascension of Richard’s eldest brother Edward to the English throne. Who exactly is this mad Margaret (Debra Lass) pattering about, shouting curses? Check out Henry VI for the answer. Who’s in the coffin that Lady Anne (Rachel Marcus) accompanies and why is she so mad at Richard? It’s all in Henry VI. And even though I’m not sure if audience members totally new to this period in English history will be able to keep up with the myriad cast doublings, I found the Henry VI excerpts (which take up a little more than half of the first act of this adaptation) to be a useful refresher.

But while this cut does highlight how the disabled future King Richard plots his path to the throne before he gets his very own play, Matt de Rogatis’ performance leans rather too heavily on Richard’s tortured inner life even when the text resists that choice. Using the latter part of the Henry VI trilogy to shed some sympathetic light on how Richard, Duke of Gloucester, became so unpleasant seems like a perfectly good idea. However, cutting the crucial speech (that begins "Now is the winter of our discontent") in which he wins over the audience with his transparent wickedness, openly confessing, "I am determined to prove a villain," feels like cheating.

What should distinguish Richard III from the colorful but plot-heavy Henry VI plays is Richard himself, particularly the title character’s seduction of not only his subjects and his ambivalent queen but also the audience. Above all, Richard must be a chameleon-like performer, a shape-shifter who lets the audience in on every sleight of hand, even as he hoodwinks us into rooting for him. Here, there’s barely a discernible difference between de Rogatis’ Richard when he’s alone, confiding in the audience and when he’s deceiving, and then destroying, anyone who stands in his way: the breathy, almost teary delivery remains the same, and this Richard is more distressed than devilish. (Greg Pragel, whose Buckingham speaks directly to the audience and has a sort of West Wing politico’s charm about him, might have made more out of the lead role.)

As King Henry VI, co-director Pendleton (a Tony nominee and Off Broadway institution) offers an endearing take on this mild-mannered monarch more than willing to give up his crown. He has a sweet, slightly lost quality as, in the midst of the battle in which he will surrender everything, his face lights up as he imagines what his life might have been like as a shepherd. There’s more compelling work from a moving Carolyn Groves as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, crippled by the loss of her husband and her two kinder sons; from Milton Elliott, in a brief humorous turn as a repentant hired assassin; and from Adam Dodway, in an even briefer appearance as the creepy, slightly-less-repentant hired assassin Tyrrell.

As the ill-fated Clarence, Pete McElligott throws a contemporary spin on the delivery of his text that enlivens his scenes, and Michael Villastrigo makes King Edward’s wooing of the widowed Elizabeth (Johanna Leister), one of the sharpest scenes in the Henry VI collection, into an uncomfortable act of coercion that nicely mirrors Richard’s eventual disturbing courtship of Lady Anne. However, I was distracted by some age-blind casting that could potentially confuse audience members unfamiliar with the already-befuddling family tree; it’s critical to the plot that Elizabeth and Anne be of child-bearing age, and neither Leister, though very good in her searing rejoinders to Richard, nor Marcus make sense in these younger roles. (The commitment to age-blind casting also emphasizes the unfortunate absence of other types of diversity onstage: the only actor of color in this cast of fifteen has barely any lines.)

The staging by Pendleton and Peter Bloch often feels more like a series of acting class exercises than a production with a coherent vision. Sometimes actors linger onstage on folding chairs when they’re not in a scene; other times they wander away. Henry VI wears a blazer, T-shirt, and sneakers—Margaret emerges at one point in what appears to be a toga. Alas, only once did I feel the alarm and suspense that these plays should elicit—in the dramatic moment when the theatre was plunged into total darkness.

(The Wars of the Roses plays at the 124 Bank Street Theatre, 124 Bank Street, through August 19, 2018. The running time is 3 hours with an intermission. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $25 and are available at

Wars of the Roses is by William Shakespeare, adapted by Austin Pendleton from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III. Directed by Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch. Lighting Design by Steve Wolf. Costume Consultant is Maya Luz. Stage Manager is Jesse Meckl. 

The cast is Jim Broaddus, John Constantine, Matt de Rogatis, Adam Dodway, Milton Elliott, Carolyn Groves, Debra Lass, Johanna Leister, Rachel Marcus, Pete McElligott, John L. Payne, Austin Pendleton, Greg Pragel, Tomas Russo, and Michael Villastrigo.