When it comes to Shakespeare’s history plays, “Henry VI” has always been something of an outlier. Theater companies tend to proceed directly from the stirringly patriotic “Henry V” to the murderous “Richard III,” judging the three-part installment in between to be too crowded, too complicated and too long.
All of which makes “The War of the Roses,” which opened Saturday evening at the California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda, a rare gift for Shakespeare fans. Adapted by Eric Ting and Philippa Kelly, and directed by Ting, the production presents all three parts of “Henry VI,” followed by “Richard III.”
It’s an audacious undertaking. With a four-hour running time (there’s a five-minute interlude midway through “Henry,” and a full intermission in “Richard”), Ting, who is Cal Shakes’ artistic director, blazes through it with considerable brio, and a well-honed 13-member ensemble illuminates the play’s densest thickets of text.
The result is an engrossing production of the seldom-staged “Henry” — Cal Shakes had never performed any part of the trilogy until Saturday’s opening — and one that fills in a lot of the back story between the end of “Henry V” and the start of “Richard III.”
“Henry VI” begins with a vivid scene establishing the unrest at the heart of the empire. As Henry V’s coffin is prominently displayed upstage, members of the warring houses of Lancaster and York gather, choosing red or white roses as symbols of their allegiance. Henry VI is crowned and married to Margaret of Anjou, but he proves too weak-willed to withstand the incoming waves of double-dealing and treachery that follow.
Throughout births, deaths, weddings and fierce battle scenes, cast members play multiple roles.
Ting’s staging clarifies the action with an overhead screen broadcasting names and places; on opening night, the excellent Jomar Tagatac got a laugh outlining the labyrinthine family connections.
After intermission, the production moves to more familiar ground with “Richard III,” as the title character, played by Bay Area favorite Danny Scheie, embarks on his bloody, take-no-prisoners path to the crown.
Both plays unfold on Nina Ball’s two-level set, with a rounded platform below for court scenes and battles and a glass-walled enclosure above serving as prisons and private spaces. Musician Josh Pollock, onstage throughout, contributes a haunting soundscape.
The cast is phenomenal. Joseph Patrick O’Malley’s cerebral Henry, Stacy Ross’ furious Gloucester, Aysan Celik’s woeful Queen Margaret, Catherine Luedtke’s Queen Elizabeth and Tagatac’s Plantagenet are standouts. Aldo Billingslea, Lance Gardner, Sarita Ocón, and Marie Sadd give indelible performances.
Scheie gives Richard III a distinctive spin. Missing are the character’s outward identifiers — the monstrous hump, the pronounced limp. But Scheie lets the character’s vile spirit project eloquently from within.
Affecting a smooth political piety, his Richard is the embodiment of a master manipulator — his scene with Luedtke’s Elizabeth, in which he requests her daughter’s hand in marriage even after he’s killed her sons — is just one of many brilliant moments in Ting’s massive “War.”
The War of the Roses
Presented by California Shakespeare Theater
Where: Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. Sept. 15; closes Sept. 15
Tickets: $20 to $92
Contact: (510) 548-9666, www.calshakes.org