Henry IV, Part One and Part Two
Girls Will Be Boys and Boys Will Be Girls;
It's a Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World
Brave Spirits Theatre, The Lab at Convergence, Alexandria, Virginia
Saturday, November 7, 2015, front row, front of studio theater
Directed by Kevin Finkelstein
Prince Hallie (Sarah Anne Sillers) play-acts as her father as Peto (Jill Tighe) watches in Brave Spirits' production of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. Below, Karen Lange as Dame Jill Falstaff. Photos by Claire Kimball, Brave Spirits Theatre.
One of my two favorite William Shakespeare plays is Henry IV, Part One (the other is King Lear), and that particular play seems to be enjoying a surge in popularity lately. We've seen seven productions of Henry IV, Part One (plus three separate Part Twos) in the past 20 months. The last three were either all-women or, in the case of Brave Spirits' pair of Henry plays, cross-gendered, and in two other productions this year, women played Henry and Hal. As a heterosexual Shakespearean, seeing women ably acting Henry IV makes my shortlist of what I would conceive as a perfectly suitable heaven, should I qualify for such an afterlife.
However, this estrogenic trend gives me pause. Why women? And I ask that not as a sexist or even a theater traditionalist; I ask it as a Shakespearean. By virtue of its approach to the two Henry IVs, Brave Spirits Theatre's productions force me to focus on that question; but by virtue of the productions' overly busy staging, multiple musical interpolations, and heavy-handed cleverness, the question is almost made moot.
All-male casting usually has historical foundations, emulating Shakespeare's original companies in a time when women were not allowed to act on stage. All-female casts have been borne out of thumb-biting at all-male casting, especially given that actresses tend to outnumber actors in most communities. However, more recently a more noble and suitable reason is to give talented actresses a chance to play Shakespeare's great roles that are too often denied them because they are women. Casting women in these male roles has some thematic merit, too, offering interesting takes on the characters and their situations.
Baltimore Shakespeare Factory's all-woman Henry IV, Part One, was partly just such a what-if exercise on the part of the company's artistic director, Tom Delise, and partly his taking advantage of an abundance of available female talent. The production succeeded on both counts: put this play containing some of Shakespeare's most richly drawn characters into the hands of a talented, verse-adept cast of any gender, and you get a great theatrical experience; that it was women playing men, you see just how macho and misogynist Henry IV is. Donmar Warehouse's production of Henry IV currently playing at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York, is set in a women's prison. My review on that production is coming soon.
Thematic exploration, along with making a theatrical statement, is the prime purpose for Brave Spirits' repertory presentation of Henry IV, Part One and Part Two. The company's slogan is "Verse and Violence," and that is explained in the company's mission statement: "Brave Spirits Theatre is dedicated to plays from the era of verse and violence which contrast the baseness of humanity with the elegance of poetry. By staging dark, visceral, intimate productions of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, we strive to tear down the perception of these plays as proper and intellectual, and instead use them to explore the boundaries of acceptable human behavior." Regendering Henry IV so that its machismo-centered men are women while its disenfranchised women are men certainly explores the boundaries of "acceptable (female) behavior" in a civilized society while reflecting on what is or is not acceptable for male behavior in the same society.
One of Brave Spirits' four one-word values is "Women": "Brave Spirits believes we have an ethical responsibility to address the disparity of the female presence in classical theater." I say amen to that. Two of its other values are "Actor" as the center of the artistic process (the company was founded and is led by two actresses) and "Audience": "In keeping with the early modern aesthetic, there is no fourth wall, and we welcome the audience as an active participant in the world of the play." I say amen to that, too. For Henry IV, the company turns a church's small fellowship hall into a studio theater, with a stage on one side but the floor comprising the main play space surrounded on the other three sides by two rows of seats. Karen Lange as Dame Jill Falstaff gives her "Honor" soliloquy by directly catechizing the audience. "Can honor set to a leg?" She asks one patron, and upon his tentative reply of "No," Lange says, "Speak louder that they canst hear you," motioning to the audience on the opposite side of the stage.
Listed first among Brave Spirits' values is "Text." "We believe the text itself holds all the clues we need to perform an early modern play with truth and vitality… In short, we trust the text, and it is the basis of our work." Though Brave Spirits is such a young company, its textual fealty to Shakespeare is usually accomplished with remarkable skill, the reason I admire its work so much.
Not so with Henry IV, in which trust in the text is notably lacking. Tampering with the text for the purposes of regendering is one thing; however, not only have the characters been regendered—King Henry to Queen Henri, Hal to Hallie, Doll Tearsheet to Dick Tearsheet—every gender reference in the play has been switched from male to female and vice versa. This is done with no more contextual thought than the pursuit of thoroughness of the device, like the result of a find-and-replace-all function in Shakespeare's document, creating jarring verse structures and leading to nonsensical moments. Falstaff telling Host Quickly, "You are a man, go" renders meaningless the joke in the male Quickly's response, "Who, I? No, I defy thee! God's light, I was never called so in mine own house before."
Director Kevin Finkelstein's most prevalent Shakespeare experience is directing hour-long radio adaptations for Lean and Hungry Theater. As entertaining as some of those productions are, by the very nature of their format and medium they are presented with excessive textual glossing and over-the-top performances. We get the same approach here. With few exceptions, the acting is physical rather than verbal: lots of stomping and blustering gestures instead of personalities resonating through the words. Finkelstein even has the women doing a weird hand-to-chest royal salute to, as he writes in his program notes, "highlight the differences between the world of the play and the world the audience enters from." Why does a director feel the need to divorce the dramatic experience from our personal experiences? This runs counter to the essence of Shakespeare who so ingeniously portays universal human experiences and flies in the face of the production's stated intent of exploring the many facets of gender identity. It also suggests that Finkelstein doesn't trust Shakespeare to deliver the goods, so instead of gaining textual insights from the regendered characters in Shakespeare's telling, this particular examination of genders renders the conclusion that women under pressure resort to sound and fury signifying nothing.
This is especially true in the manic portrayals of Henri "Hallie" Monmouth (Sarah Anne Sillers) and Henri "Hotspur" Percy (Briana Manente). Sillers delivers Hal's "I know you all" soliloquy in such a bitchy tone it comes off as Queen B vanity, especially when she gets to how "she may be more wondered at by breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors that did seem to strangle her," spoken with the excited fervor of a so-so singer aspiring to be the next American Idol. Hal has mommy issues, of course—that's part of the play—but in this presentation, Hotspur has even more serious mommy issues. Her mother, the Countess of Northumberland (Claire Schoonover playing the Earl of Northumberland's part), goes so far as to strike Hotspur to get her to shut up. "Why, look you, I am whipp'd and scourged with rods," Hotspur says, and though Shakespeare's Percy is referring metaphorically to his irritation at "this vile politician, Bolingbroke," Manente's Hotspur is complaining about life with her mother. For all of her tiger-like prowling, her volcanic eruptions, and her dismissive attitude toward everybody except the Douglas, Menante's Hotspur lacks that in her that both her allies and enemies constantly comment on: honor.
The production's busyness extends to a soundtrack of crowd noises in the tavern scenes and the sound of combat as Falstaff relates her tall tale of the battle of Gadshill. Even the simple set of small blocks painted to resemble stone walls gets overly complicated. It's cool when the blocks are lined on the stage to create battlements, stacked to serve as tavern tables, positioned to form the forest for the capture of Coleville, and arranged into a cross for Queen Henri's deathbed in the Jerusalem Room. However, these blocks are rearranged, often superfluously, between every scene change, slowing the play's pace.
Further slowing the pace (and requiring much cutting of the text) is the music, 30 songs total, most of which are wielded like dramatic sledgehammers where Shakespeare's piercing needle would do the job. The production opens with Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain," a great choice; other choices are more puzzling or off-putting: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" to open Part Two (instead of Rumor's speech); Aerosmith's "Dream On" as a dirge for Hotspur's funeral in Part Two (though Shakespeare doesn't portray Hotspur's funeral in either play); Queen's "The Show Must Go On" upon Queen Henri's death; and Queen Henri (Annette Mooney Wasno) singing Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" during a slow-motion rendition of the Gadshill robbery (Wasno is put in another strange juxtaposition when she delivers Henri's "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" soliloquy behind Falstaff and Dick Tearsheet canoodling on the stage.)
Busyness has its place, and Finkelstein proves adept at staging the action scenes, whether it's the battle of Shrewsbury or the attempted arrest of Falstaff in the street, which has comic behavior happening in every corner of the stage, even during the dialogue. A key player in this fray is Peto (Jill Tighe), who takes the part of Falstaff's page in Part Two. Tighe is a delight to watch, not only physically immersing herself in a casually criminal character like Peto, but also carefully studying the nuances of every line her characters speak. She thus makes a most singular Prince John, Hal's brother—er, Hallie's sister, Prince Joan—who doesn't have the patience for honor, courtesy, or even nobility. As Hallie gives Joan the honor of delivering up the prisoner Douglas "ransomless and free," Tighe's Joan walks off with a cynical, "I thank your grace for this high courtesy, which I shall give away immediately."
Schoonover also brings strong verse-speaking skills to her roles of Northumberland, the Lady Chief Justice, and Vernon. The production's poetic highlight is her Vernon describing Hal preparing for battle, a speech unfortunately cut short, robbing us of not only enjoying Schoonover's masterful delivery but also hearing of Hallie's American Idol moment. Other superior performances are turned in—ironically, maybe?—by the two male cast members: James T. Majewski as a nervous Host Quickly and as a sincerely pious Archbishop of York; and Carl Brandt Long as Dick Tearsheet, as Lord Northumberland (speaking Lady Northumberland's lines in Part Two), and as "The Welshman," Glendower's son and Mortimer's husband (aka, Lady Mortimer in Shakespeare's original). I'm not sure if Dick Tearsheet is a gigolo or just a groupie, but Long captures the alternating crassness and loving temper of Shakespeare's Doll. He also gives a sweet performance in the Welsh scene, speaking in Welsh with Tighe's Esme Mortimer wrapped around him and then singing to ease the heartbreak of Kate Percy (Hannah Sweet), Hotspur's neglected and emotionally abused wife.
Wasno plays Queen Henri with put-upon dignity, a woman who is right royal in the court but a mother anguished by a daughter who has gone way wrong. In the interview scene of Part One, Hallie sneers when her mother describes "thy affections, which do hold a wing quite from the flight of all thy ancestors." Hallie doesn't give a flip about her ancestral lineage. What does move her is when mom admits she "hath desired to see thee more." But by this time, Wasno's Henri is fed up with her daughter's 'tude, and after climaxing her lambast of Hallie by accusing her of siding with Hotspur, the queen starts heading off stage, stopping when Sillers's Hallie shouts "Do not think so!" As Wasno turns back with a look that says, "what could you ever say that would make me believe you?" Sillers' Hallie implores more desperately, "You shall not find it so." Despite a production and performances of much clutter, these two actresses nail this pivotal moment perfectly.
Another scene creates a point of insight in spite of itself: the rebel summit at Glendower's palace. The scene as written is comic gold as Hotspur defies Glendower's vainglorious proclamations; but Manente's Hotspur has no social filters and rumbles inexorably into plain rudeness. The final argument is over Hotspur's intent to channel the River Trent to give his portion of the divided kingdom more fertile land. The text has Glendower, after first adamantly insisting Hotspur shall not dam the river, simply saying, "Come, you shall have Trent turned," and Hotspur replies, "I do not care." I've always figured—and seen played—that Glendower simply relents out of respect for Hotspur's noble stubbornness. But in Amy Davis's Glendower, this line is not so simple. There's something dangerous in the way she says it, a tone that suggests Glendower at that moment has decided to back out of the rebellion, and the turning of the Trent is therefore a nonissue.
These are readings that have nothing to do with gender—at least, I don't think they do. Yet, while the blanket gender switching in the script leads to much awkwardness, it does yield some singularly fun moments, too. Falstaff's "let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon" takes on a double meaning now that the speaker is a woman. Though the "You are a man" joke on Host Quickly falls flat, the ensuing "manhood" joke far outpaces the original's womanhood joke: "There's neither faith, truth, nor manhood in me else," Quickly says, and Falstaff replies, "There's no more faith in thee than a stewed prune."
"I have always wanted to see a woman play Jack Falstaff; and though I have yet to see Falstaff played as Jacqueline Falstaff, I am satisfied in Kay-Megan Washington's performance that such casting would be a right thing to do." I'm quoting from my review of the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory all-female production. Lange is not "Jackie" Falstaff, but she is Jill Falstaff, and I finally get to see a woman's take on the role as a woman. Setting aside the massive amount of cellulite she carries with her costume, Lange gives a learned reading of the role. Yet, it displeases me. Jill Falstaff comes off as a pompous, crass loafer, bullying everybody with an affected sweetness that's as obnoxiously annoying as it is foolproof to assail. I've encountered her type in many circumstances, and such women always get under my skin, which is so unlike Falstaff, the greatest comic creation in literature.
But hold on, Eric. You could make the exact same complaint about Jack Falstaff, the only difference being gender. Why is it that, to me, he is funny and disarmingly charming while she is crude and perpetually irritating? I'd love to say it's all in the performance but, frankly, I can't be sure of that—some of it, if not all, is in my reception of the character.
Although it seems fitting to compare this Henry IV with the Baltimore version we saw three months earlier (in which the women didn't try to be men when playing them), the more apt comparison is with the Titan Theatre Company's all-woman Othello earlier this year in Queens, New York. In that production, Venice and Cyprus were Amazon societies, and the actresses brought their gender perspectives to their male roles regendered as women, and Iago and Roderigo in particular took on different complexities as women.
This pair of Henry IVs plays more like a gang girl exploitation movie in which we imbibe in the guilty pleasure of watching women get drunk, tell dirty jokes, and fight. Maybe that is the female cast's perspective from what Shakespeare has given them. Or maybe that's the perspective of the male director, one who goes to the bother of changing king to queen, earl to countess , and sir to dame, but fails to regender the title of "prince" for Henri's daughters. For all the efforts of the women making this play theirs, it's still a man's world.
November 30, 2015