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Complicated Wars not so rosy

Henry VI a work in progress

Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses

At Bard on the Beach until Sept. 21

Tickets: 604-739-0559

I didnt know much about Henry VI, his cohorts and conspirators before seeing the preview of Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses at Bard on the Beach last weekend. Like most wars, it was complicated.

In his program notes, director/adapter Christopher Weddell calls the Henry VI trilogy (Henry VI Parts I, II and III) a massive epic and it is. Despite Weddells best effort to pull all three plays together into one simplified whole, one look at the family trees of the House of York and the House of Lancaster will warn you to keep your wits about you. There are a couple of Henrys (one live, one recently deceased), a few Edwards (Edward IV, V and Edward Prince of Wales) and two Richards Richard Duke of York and Richard who will become Richard III after the play ends.

Before curtain, artistic director Christopher Gaze issued a warning: a preview is still a work in progress and we, the audience, are part of the process. The preview I saw was all there; no glitches and solid performances from the almost twenty 20 on the Studio Stage.

In repertory theatre, however, everyone has to be kept busy for the season and that can lead to some awkward casting. Linda Quibell is one of the best actors around town, but shes miscastat least initiallyas young Margaret, with whom the married Earl of Suffolk is so suddenly smitten. (He finesses a marriage between Margaret and the ineffectual Henry VI so he can continue his affair with her.) Later on, however, Quibell finds her feet as the enraged queen who discovers her son Ned has been set aside as rightful heir to the throne.

The costuming also raises questions. Designer Sheila White puts Queen Margaret at one point in a tailored suit that looks straight out of the 1920s or 30s. Later, the queen appears as a sort of present-day dominatrix in leather, wielding a sword. (And here we thought Margaret had divorced Henry and was out of the picture. But there she is in leather pants and laced up girdle waging bloody battle with all the boys.)

Slightly flaky Henry VI, although nicely played by Josue Laboucane, sometimes looks like Gandhi in baggy cotton trousers and what appears to be an Indian bedspread. At another point, he wears a red satin jacket that looks like something from China. If White was going for a universal, timeless look, she got it.

And there are anachronisms. A flash photo is taken of Lady Jane Grey and Edward IVs newborn, and someone shoots someone else with a handgun then later chases down the same fellow with a sword.

Still, there are some remarkable performances. The always-excellent Scott Bellis is strong as the Duke of York as are Kyle Rideout and Craig Erickson in various roles. Allan Morgan is impressive as a nasty cleric, and Joel Wirkkunen is appropriately rowdy as the commoner Jack Cade. Nicola Lipman makes a fine, persuasive widow.

It youre into gore and guts, Henry VI will do it for you. I lost count of the bloody heads on poles after four or five.

The best thing about Henry VI is how it lays the groundwork for Richard III that opens on July 13. Bob Frazer, as Richard (in both Henry VI and Richard III), is fantastic: hunchbacked, lurching, and sinister. At one point he even smiles a smile that would freeze your popsicles. I can hardly wait to see him opening Richard III with, Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York by which he means the fortunes of his family have improved now that his brother is king.

Ah, but not for long.