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‘Margaret’ reveals Shakesperian ‘tiger’s heart’

Published: October 21, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

In William Shakespeare’s “Henry VI Part 3,” the Duke of York describes Queen Margaret as a “tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide.” Despite her involvement in various battles, both personal and physical, that “woman’s hide” is clearly a supporting part. “Margaret: A Tiger’s Heart”—a re-cutting of the “Henry VI” trilogy and “Richard III” being staged this weekend by Hold Thy Peace and the Brandeis Players—tries to remedy that by refocusing the action around the powerful queen.

Margaret (Caitlin Partridge ’13) certainly makes her presence felt, spending much of her early time on stage attired in a striking red dress with matching red heels while everyone else sticks to plain suits and combat fatigues. You immediately sense her strength, her determination and her insistence on always speaking her mind. These characteristics certainly come in handy.

Her husband, King Henry VI (Julian Seltzer ’15) is mild-mannered and pious, which ordinarily wouldn’t be a problem in times of peace. As it is, the Duke of York (Alex Davis ’15) is determined to remove the House of Lancaster from the throne and install himself as king. York sees the perfect opportunity to do this in the king’s weakness.

Historically, Margaret hasn’t always been viewed favorably by critics. For one thing, she’s unrepentantly sexual. After marrying Henry, she begins an affair with the Duke of Suffolk (Jonathan Plesser ’12), and together they oust Henry’s favorite adviser and former regent, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (Charlotte Oswald ’12). At times Margaret fails to hide her disgust with her husband’s weakness; clearly she finds him pathetic. In short, Margaret doesn’t make the best of wives.

“Margaret,” however, argues for a more nuanced view of the queen: Yes, she’s flawed, but in a profoundly human way. She does go behind her husband’s back, but, when times get tough, she’s there for her family, even leading an army into battle so long as her son’s future will be secure. When the body count starts going up—remember, this is Shakespeare—you can sense the depth of her feeling; her son and, yes, even her husband rank before power in her eyes (and besides, what’s so terrible about liking power?). These elements always existed in Shakespeare’s trilogy, but the re-cutting foregrounds her complexity and humanity.

This is not to say that the play whitewashes her capacity for cruelty. In one scene, Margaret wipes York’s brow with a rag drenched in the blood of one of his sons; she then mockingly crowns him with her garter. At the very least, she was ballsy.

This production of “Margaret” was buoyed by an exceptionally strong cast. Simply put, there was not one weak link.

Partridge captures all the complexity of the titular queen. She brings a palpable intensity to every moment in which she’s onstage; when her Margaret denies Henry her affection, everyone feels her scorn. Most importantly, however, Partridge is effectively able to meld the tempestuous and tender sides of Margaret together without it seeming like two completely different people.

Partridge has especially good chemistry with Plesser, who plays both her banished lover and her young son, Prince Edward. Plesser imbues the Duke of Suffolk with just enough swagger; his scenes with Partridge’s Margaret are electric, full of passion—in essence, the opposite of Margaret’s relationship with her actual husband.

Seltzer grants King Henry a lost quality. He never knows how to communicate with the world around him, and he never learns—even before he speaks, you can see this in his baffled eyes and uncertain body language.

Perhaps the biggest standout, however, is Stephen Badras ’13 as the Duke of York’s conniving, hunchbacked son, Richard Plantagenet (later known to history as Richard III). Badras completely inhabits the psychotic imbalances that seemingly shape all of Richard’s actions—one moment he’s laughing with gleeful malice, the next ruminating on his family’s shortcomings.

Of course, the entire cast did an outstanding job, with many appearing only for brief segments. Special mention has to be made of all four actors who played the sons of York, a motley crew that alternated backstabbing with gleeful laughter.

If any problems exist with “Margaret,” they lay in the way the text has been re-cut. Because “Margaret” is pulled from four different Shakespeare plays (primarily parts one and two of “Henry VI”), the pacing feels choppy at times; things happen at such a quick pace that there isn’t much time to process the gravity of them. One moment Lancaster is on top, the next York. It’s not necessarily difficult to follow, but there’s not much room for the audience to breathe.

The play also fails to meet its key goal—that is, making Margaret the main focus. When comparing it to the parts of “Henry VI,” the ratio of scenes with Margaret versus without is certainly higher. Despite cutting materials not directly pertinent to her, she’s still not the one driving most of the action. When the Wars of the Roses erupt, Margaret largely takes the backseat; yes, she does lead the Lancaster army into action, but she then disappears to France as the focus shifts to King Edward (Andrew Prentice ’13), Richard and Warwick (Samantha LeVangie ’15).

But these are quibbles with the re-cut text, not the production itself. Overall, director Dave Benger ’14 has put together an excellent production with a talented cast and crew that tackles one of the more enigmatic figures in the Shakespeare canon.