The horrors of war and the fury of hatred suffuse the air as Creighton University Theatre director Amy Lane sears your mind in her take on The Fire Within, Vincent Carlson-Brown’s reworking of Shakespeare’s Henry VI.

Lane’s impressive stagecraft makes the story alive with vivid images, images which also help to clarify the complex story—no easy task.  Carlson-Brown has also done much to bring it into focus while retaining the essence of Shakespeare’s trilogy about the War of Roses in this and in Foreign Flames, which just finished all too short a time at UNO.

Clearly this production can stand alone, as could the one at UNO, given that collaborators Carlson-Brown, Lane and UNO’s Scott Glasser intended to make that so. Thus, although what happens is a progressive narrative, this script makes clear what has gone before.

Fragile, reluctant King Henry VI, ill-equipped to reign unlike his heroic father, finds his realm coming apart at the seams, losing recently conquered parts of France while his nobles contend with each other for dominance and territory. They factionalize centering around the houses of Lancaster and York. The Earl of Suffolk fosters a marriage between his lover Margaret of Anjou and the King while intrigues in the court flourish.  Meanwhile the Duke of York, who claims rightful ascendancy to the throne, encourages a people’s revolt led by Jack Cade, plotting as well with the quarrelsome York sons about how to seize royal power.

On a dramatic multi-level set designed by Bill Van Deest, a place full of vitality and imagination, Lane evokes impressive images of Joan La Pucelle burned into Henry’s guilty memory, or the overshadowed King helplessly, almost interminably, witnessing the struggles and the horrors in his own land. And in the foreground, so close that you could almost be splashed by blood, enemies slash at each other and tellingly rise like ghosts of the slain. The compelling cruelty intensifies until the play’s seething end when bloody Richard III casts his dark and crooked shadow over what is yet to come.

Lane’s costumer designer Lindsay Pape offers a brilliant stroke of color by giving Margaret a red flower-like headdress, amid the other clear identifications of further Lancaster red and York white, especially York and his fractious clan, clustered by Lane into a multi-limbed wolf-pack.  Henry’s robes also invest him in magnificence, despite his internal instability.

The cast of 21, of which there are twice as many students as other actors, comes across as a dynamic ensemble peopling the stage. Many double in small roles. Vincent Carlson-Brown, Sarah Carlson-Brown, Scott Kurz, Nick Zadina, Peter Nicholson and Dennis Stessman stand out.

Vincent Carlson-Brown fills the space as the raffish oaf Cade. Sarah Carlson Brown also gives much credibility to Margaret, making her quite sensual in her trysts with Suffolk and, later, turns believably fierce when the Queen leads her own army.  Kurz makes York an urgent force, owning the stage with unceasing vitality, continuing in the role initiated in Foreign Flames. Zadina’s perceptive portrayal of Henry has many human layers, vulnerable, sorrowful, earnest and, at times, quite assertive. Edward of York, who becomes King after Henry is murdered, is played by Creighton’s Peter Nicholson, convincingly conveying the sense of a swaggering, nearly adolescent fool. And as the hovering soon-to-be Richard III, Dennis Stessman, from UNO, perfectly personifies the vicious, misshapen evil for which the role is famed. Take note as well of impressive ten-year old Stella Clark-Kaczmarek’s Edmund, York’s youngest son violently killed by Margaret’s followers.

Some women students take men’s roles. This is a deliberate choice by Lane, Glasser and Carlson-Brown to give acting students equal opportunity regardless of gender. This admirable idea results in showing a need for more training, specifically for those playing nobles. Their characters seem more interchangeable than specific; they could also benefit from more chances to develop real feelings for the richness of the language.   

Enhancing the clarity of staging which tells the story, there is also a further way to understand what unfolds. Within the pages of the program book, Nellie MacCallum provides excellent synopses plus a clear genealogy chart defining the relationships among the characters. To make it as clear as possible, she includes photos of the actors who interpret the roles. Given that these two productions are university-originated, MacCallum does fine educational service.   

You may ask, as violent event follows violent event in this play, graphically evoked by Lane, what Shakespeare thought about war. If he did think about it. Certainly, given his times, such constant unnatural death was inevitable. Given ours, you can applaud how Lane, Glasser and Carlson-Brown make it vivid and ask us to ponder: Is it still inevitable?

A War of Roses-A Fire Within, to Nov. 20, Lied Center, Creighton University. 24th and Cass, Thurs. Fri. Sat: 7:30 p.m. Sun. 2 p.m. $5-$16.

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