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If you're going to do all of Shakespeare, sooner or later you have to tackle the cumbersome "Henry VI" trilogy. Rambling, diffuse, and confusing, the three plays trace the bloody War of the Roses as the houses of York and Lancaster compete for the British crown. They are generally regarded as a boring prelude to the more exciting "Richard III," which concludes the saga. Plots and counterplots, double- and triple-crosses multiply till the action resembles an Elizabethan soap opera. The New York Shakespeare Festival has put these "Henry" plays off to nearly the end of its marathon presentation of the Bard's complete canon.

Karin Coonrod, artistic director of Off-Off-Broadway's Arden Party theatre company, has edited the sprawling epic down to a two-evening show with 10 actors crossing gender lines to play all the parts. When the storyline and staging are at their simplest, Coonrod and cast can be very effective. The high spot of the entire six hours is a direct confrontation between the cornered Duke of York (Steven Skybell) and his mortal enemy the vicious Queen Margaret (Angie Phillips), who taunts him with a napkin stained with the blood of his son. As the two spar, you can feel the stinging heat of their hatred.

But there are more elements which have "director's concept" written all over them and just don't work. These include a Bob Fosse-style dance number to depict a citizens' rebellion, with a hip-thrusting Jack Cade boogeying to the throne; a prolonged death scene wherein the Earl of Warwick, played by a black actress, seems to be launching into a spiritual; a bearded actor in drag as a French noblewoman for comic effect; and the conquering house of York performing the old soft shoe to the tune of "Tea for Two" while splashing in the blood of the murdered Henry VI. These bizarre choices are not integrated into the overall flow of the production and stick out like the proverbial sore thumbs.

Still, there is strong acting from the ensemble, particularly Angie Phillips' flinty Queen Margaret, Steven Skybell's determined York, Fanni Green's noble Earl of Warwick (despite that over-long death scene), and Tom Nelis' King Henry, who matures from gentle child to vaccilating monarch to saint-like recluse.

P.K. Wish's dank set rips the Martinson Hall space in two, with the audience on either side of the playing area, while Kevin Adams' lighting transforms it into numerous locations in England and France. Constance Hoffman's costumes give the proceedings a mixed-bag effect, pairing leather jackets and army fatigues with 15th-century gowns and robes. Similarly, the director has mixed simple, effective scenes with stagey, shallow ones for an uneven production.

Presented (in repertory) by and at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/NYSF, 425 Lafayette St., NYC, Dec. 18

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