May 14th, 2007

Henry IV, Part I, Milwaukee Shakespeare

We were half expecting the heavens to open Wednesday the 9th, since the last times we had attempted to see one of Shakepeare's "history" plays ("Richard II" and "Henry V",) we had been at American Players Theatre in Spring Green, and been rained out both times. Fortunately, on this night the weather was good, and the venue was indoors, which presented its own challenges--.

We had caught a couple of performamces by this company during its partnership with the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and found them enjoyable if not without flaws (cf: "The Taming of the Shrew" previously reviewed herein). this show was reviewed well, as distinguished from this season's earlier "Macbeth," which was roundly criticised for making poor use of its performance space and having a weak Lady Macbeth.

This play was done in a very different space, the Studio Theater at the Broadway Theatre Center, which also houses the Skylight Opera Company. The Studio Theater is a "black box" performance space, and empty rectangular area that can be reconfigured for a number of different types of perfomance. For this show the space was set up "in the round" with performers on the floor in the center and seating on risers at either end. The result is a comparatively small and initmate theatre with a 'stage' about 30 feet on a side and used almost up to the first row's toes.

This space works well for most of the scenes. The play picks up some time after the action of "Richard II," in which the feckless Richard loses his crown to the provoked rebel Bolingbroke, who takes the throne as Henry IV instead of the childless Richard's anoited successor, Edmund Mortimer. As the play opens, King Henry deals undiplomatically with the powerful northern lords, the Earls of Worcester and Northumberland, and Northumberland's son, Henry Percy ("Hotspur") who were not only Henry's early supporters in his rebellion against Richard, but who have lately done good service in defeating a Scottish invasion under the Earl of Douglas. Thanks in part to his clumsy handling, the three great lords make common cause with "The Douglas" and Mortimer and his new father-in-law, the Welsh warlord Owen Glendower, and raise a mew rebellion against Henry.

This is the play that introduces Henry's son, "Prince Hal," his drinking companion, Sir John Falstaff, and Falstaff's pack of rogues. Hal, left idle by the inexplicable English practice of not giving the Crown Prince any real office, has fallen into bad ways and is the despair of his father, who wishes he had Hotspur as a son instead. Hal and Falstaff roister while rebellion foments, until war actually breaks out at which time Hal rallies to his father's defence and proves himself in battle.

The intimate space proved good for the scenes of council and conspiracy, amd made us feel that we were guests at Mistress Quickly's tavern along with Hal and the gang. This, however, was a mixed blessing, as some of the scenes wer just TOO LOUD. Hal, Falstaff, and the others drunkenly rant at the top of their lungs, which became a bit wearing after a time. As good an effect could have been achieved by toning voices down a decibel.

This play climaxes in a prolonged battle scene--far longer than that of "Macbeth" and longer than the battle of Bosworth Field in "Richard III", so the producers felt this called for lots of action. Although well done, and all kudos to the fight choreographer for doing so much in so small a space, the fight scenes made me nervous, and not just because we were sitting in the front row within arm's reach of swinging steel. Knowing the little bit I do about stage combat, I felt the fight direction took some unnecessary risks bu such things as moving from slow-motion to full speed, and punctuating the battle with flashing lights, all of which tend to unbalance. The use of "smoke" in this small space was also questionable: since the sightlines were short, in order to cause any real "fog of battle" effect, so much would have to have been used that the air would have become unbreathable, rather than merely irritating to asthmatic people like Georgie. (As it happened, we were sitting unfortunately near the "fog machine" and I could taste the smoke chemicals on my lips by the time the show was ended.)

King Henry IV is an example of the "Peter Principle" in action, having risen from popular rebel to unpopular King, a man who cannot seem to say the right thing, either to his former supporters or to his son, and was well played by Jeff Allin. Hal and Hotspur are the real stars, and nice performances of these two very different characters were given by Jeffrey Withers and Brian J. Gill, respectively. Of course, Falstaff tends to steal the scenes he is in (as well as anything not nailed down), and Richard Ziman gave us a very interesting Sir John, whom Georgie summed up as "a dangerous rogue." His white whiskers give him a "Kris Kringle" look, unsettling with his glittering blue eyes that the smiles do not quite reach. This was a good portrait of a poor knight whom laws and customs prohibited any trade save highway robbery in times of peace, and pillage in times of war, and who has to live by his wits otherwise.

All the actors spoke well and clearly, and delivered their lines with sense, always a joy to hear with Shakespeare. This play, consisting as it does maily of arguing (even among allies), battlefield boasting, and the aformentioned drunken ranting, does not really give itself to fine layers of emotion, although there was an excellent tender scene between Timothy Linn as Mortimer and Courtney Jones as his new wife, even though she speaks and sings only Welsh. Other standouts in the supporting cast were Laurence O'Dwyer, as wizardly Glendower, and Todd Denning as the battle-loving Douglas.

Like most of Shakespeare's plays, there is some lesson for us no deeply hidden. Of course, the lesson not to write someone off due to their past, Prince Hal's story, is quite familar. However, I was additionally struck by the tragic treachery of Worcester (Patrick Lawlor) who does not believe in the King's offer of settlement and hides it from his chivalrous nephew, Hotspur, so that the battle will go on. One would have thought that such a thing could never happen in mdern times, yet we have seen our own governmant hide truth from us repeatedly so that they could have the war they wanted. Shakepeare's plays are living texts still.

The Milwaukee Shakepeare company has great promise: they need only someone who can measure and employ their performance space to maximise their potential.