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(photo by Richard Termine)

Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) doesn’t take kindly to French threats in Ivo van Hove’s KINGS OF WAR (photo by Richard Termine)

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
Peter Jay Sharp Building
230 Lafayette Ave.
November 3-6, $30-$130

If you’ve ever wondered just what all the fuss is about Ivo van Hove, then hustle over to BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House and see the Dutch-based Belgian theater director’s latest wonder, Kings of War. A follow-up of sorts to Roman Tragedies, van Hove’s five-and-a-half-hour merging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus that played at BAM in November 2012, Kings of War seamlessly combines the Bard’s Henry V, Henry VI Parts I, II, and III, and Richard III into a dazzling four-and-a-half-hour multimedia extravaganza. The Toneelgroep Amsterdam production opens with a projection on a video screen of every English king or queen starting with Queen Elizabeth II and going backward to Henry IV, immediately linking the past to the present. Jan Versweyveld’s set and An D’Huys’s costumes bring them together further, with the characters dressed in contemporary clothing — the men in suits, the women in dresses, pantsuits, and heels — while the stage, inspired by Winston Churchill’s WWII War Room, features modern computers and old television monitors playing scenes from war movies. Translated into Dutch by Rob Klinkenberg and freely adapted by Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij, the play focuses on the kings and their thirst, or lack thereof, for power and the awesome responsibility they take on when deciding to go to war or not, exploring the psychological battles going on inside their head. Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) becomes a fast learner as he attempts to negotiate with the dauphin of France (Robert de Hoog) and his liaison (Chris Nietvelt) to prevent a war, but soon he is claiming the hand of Katharina (Hélène Devos) from her father, Charles VI (Leon Voorberg), in order to establish peace. Henry VI (Eelco Smits) is not quite as successful, a whimpering coward who does not want to be king; his feeble wooing of Margareta (Janni Goslinga) is hysterical. And then comes the dastardly Richard III, portrayed with a captivating bravado by Hans Kesting, sporting a hump and an ugly birthmark on his face; his bold pursuit to marry Lady Anne (Devos) after having just killed her beloved husband is utterly thrilling.

(photo by Richard Termine)

Henry VI (Eelco Smits) is not quite up to being king in four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza (photo by Richard Termine)

In a program note, van Hove, who recently directed the back-to-back Arthur Miller plays A View from the Bridge and The Crucible on Broadway and the David Bowie / Enda Walsh collaboration Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop, explains, “It is fascinating to witness how crucial decisions about life and death are made. This play shows man at his most noble and at his most perverse. . . . It is inspiring to discover Shakespeare as a contemporary who is dealing with the type of events we see on the news every day: the dark machinations of the people in power and the violence that their decisions bring about.” Also inspiring is van Hove’s brilliant staging. The War Room changes with each new king, who is crowned in a stylistic manner as a brass band (Konstantin Koev, Charlotte van Passen, Daniel Quiles Cascant, Daniel Ruibal Ortigueir) plays and contratenor Steve Dugardin sings. The back of the set leads to morgue-like white corridors where various men meet their fate; the behind-the-scenes action is shown live on a large screen divided into rectangular grids, as a cameraman roams across the stage, getting up close and personal with the characters. (The video is by Tal Yarden.) It’s particularly effective during the spectacular Richard III section; as the king tries to convince the widowed Lady Anne that he is in love with her, her dead husband can be seen both on the screen as well as at the very back, on a gurney, his presence looming over them. Later, when Richard examines himself in a full-size mirror, the multiple images are breathtaking as van Hove reveals the villain’s many faces.

(photo by Richard Termine)

Richard III (Hans Kesting) takes a strange path in wooing Lady Anne (Hélène Devos) in Ivo van Hove epic at BAM (photo by Richard Termine)

Most members of the terrific cast play multiple roles, with Nasr as Henry V and Richmond, Eelco Smits as Henry VI and Grey, Bart Siegers as Edward IV, York, and Henry V’s chief of staff, Leon Voorberg as Charles VI, Warwick, and Stanley, Aus Greidanus Jr. as Gloucester and Buckingham, and de Hoog as the dauphin, Suffolk, and Clarence. The language has been modernized, which might at first bother Shakespeare purists, especially when reference is made to the current political situation in America, but that’s yet another way van Hove fuses the past with the present, as the fight for supremacy in the corridors of power is, of course, timeless and universal. (Thus, the ticking of metronomes as the finale approaches.) The nearly 270 minutes, with one intermission, fly by fairly quickly, as the play hits all the high notes at a gripping pace, zeroing in on deaths and coronations. Van Hove excels at adaptations, preferring them to new works; the Obie and Tony winner has previously been at BAM with Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, John Cassavetes’s Opening Night, and Sophocles’s Antigone, in addition to Roman Tragedies, continually coming up with remarkably innovative ways to tell stories, taking audiences to places they have never been before. Kings of War is another grand triumph, a staggering achievement from a true creative genius.

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