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The Falcon's Pitch -07/10/1998

Adapted from William Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3 by Jeffrey Sweet.  Cast: Tandy Cronyn, Roderick Peeples, Eric Kramer, Steve Young, Jamie Axtell, Jay Whittaker, Deb Heinig, Patrick O'Gara, Christopher Johnson, Christopher Peterson, Annemarie Benedict, Joshua Coomer, Peter Dadabbo, John Fischer, Aaron Fleisher, Ravi Gahunia, Brad Johnson, Timothy Kane, Alex Kitay, Mark Larson, Andres Munar, Carrie Lee Patterson, Erin Schneider, Dan Wolfe, Hayden Young, Mary Catherine Burke, Glynka L. Fritz, Jessica Schulte, Ryan Swikle.  Director: Bruce Colville.  Costume Designer: Kathryn Rohe.  Scenic Designer: John C. Stark.  Sound Designer: Woodrow Hood.  Lighting Designer: J. William Ruyle.  Dramaturg: John Poole.  Original music by Mark Larson.

Illinois Shakespeare Festival 98 in repertory through August 6.  Ewing Manor, Bloomington, and Westhoff Theater, Normal.  Box office: (309) 438-2535.  Website:


(World Premiere of "The Falcon's Pitch" Flies High)

Shakespeare's "Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3" are not among the Bard's more frequently performed works.

Still, these history plays, covering the middle part of what we've come to call England's Wars of the Roses, do have their moments and their advocates.  If nothing else, they fill in the gaps between "Henry V" and "Richard III," both well-loved (and not coincidentally, recently revived for the movies by prominent British actors).

Award-winning playwright Jeffrey Sweet is the most recent scribe to take on "Henry VI," with a small portion of Part 1 and bigger chunks of 2 and 3, all transmogrified into "The Falcon's Pitch."

The Illinois Shakespeare Festival in Bloomington-Normal presents the world premiere of this "new" play, with Bruce Colville at the helm and celebrated actress Tandy Cronyn in the starring role.

The title refers to ambition, as various factions around ill-fated Henry vie for power, hoping to see their own falcons fly higher than the rest (presumably with their talons at the ready).

Sweet has left out some of the more famous historical characters in "Henry VI."  You'll find no Joan of Arc, no Jack Cade or his rebellion. Instead, this version concentrates on the battle lines around the king, on the Lancastrians and Yorkists try to out-maneuver, out-scheme each other.

In the center of the action, very much emphasized in this adaptation, is Queen Margaret, the She-Wolf of France, wife to weak, ineffectual Henry.

The strength of Sweet's script lies in the confrontations, as adversaries face off to chilling effect again and again. Making the most of the script's opportunities, Colville's stage pictures are highly composed and effective, and Cronyn is very compelling, as Margaret makes her way from sweet young thing, plucked from her father's kingdom by the canny Marquis of Suffolk, into a formidable, ruthless queen, plotting with the best of them.

As her chief enemy, Richard, Duke of York, Roderick Peeples turns in a masterful performance, making the Margaret-York showdown one of the production's highlights.

Also of note are Eric Kramer as wily Suffolk, Jamie Axtell as feeble Henry, Steve Young and Deb Heinig as the well-meaning, ill-fated Protector of the Realm and his witchy wife, and Christopher Johnson and Christopher Peterson as father-and-son combatants in the Wars.

Still, it is Jay Whittaker's Richard (later Richard III) who steals the show every time he scuttles his spider-like self across the stage. 

Even this "Falcon" can't create a villain to rival the poisonous hunchback of the later play.  Whittaker is spell-binding, especially in the scene where he does away with poor King Henry, promising good things for his next villain -- Don John in "Much Ado" later in the Festival.

Or perhaps the ISF can bring him back to do the full "Richard" next year?

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