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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Little Big Bard

Treading the Bard's Dept.: As promised, my review of the two-for-the-price-of-one Henry IV now on view at Shakespeare & Co. in the Berkshires.


IT’S A STORY OF GREAT SWEEP, a David Lean epic, but, as Shakespeare wrote it, laced with comedy of the Richard Lester variety. Henry IV is one of the Bard’s history plays, which right there condemns it to neglect; that the full story required two complete plays makes it the more forbidding.

Alexander Sovronsky, Henry Clarke, Malcolm Ingram,
and Michael F. Toomey. Photo by Kevin Sprague.
Unless you’re Jonathan Epstein, working with a talented cast of friends and family at Shakespeare & Co. He had the balls to combine and trim them to a total of less than three hours, and the smarts to do so with respect for the original.

Much else has been sacrificed to give us this fleet and funny Henry. The stripped-down set, the nonspecifically old costumes, the cast of thirteen – it’s a chamber-music version. The cell phones, the laptop computer – more proof that Shakespeare’s plays are timeless.

And when Hotspur (Timothy Adam Venable) shoots his computer, it’s a satisfying button on an emotionally wrought scene. By this time, we’ve learned to accept the convention of having electronic gadgets on hand. Early in the play, when King Henry (Jonathan Epstein) asks his son, Lancaster (his son, Benjamin) of Prince Hal’s whereabouts, Lancaster checks his cell phone to determine that the prince is with Falstaff – an easy-to-recognize gesture that invites sympathy for the beleaguered king.

Henry Clarke is an outstanding Hal, convincing as both rakehell and prince but bringing sonorous dignity to his character by the simple expedient of honoring the poetry of the lines while sounding convincingly conversational.

And he’s equally convincing with sword in hand. The climactic fight with Hotspur, staged by Michael Toomey, also includes pistols, fists and a nasty iron bar, with which Hal finishes off his adversary while in an appropriately and uncomfortably erotic clinch. (Toomey also is in the cast, merrily bouncing between low and high as Bardolph and the saucy Earl of Worcester.)

Then there’s Malcolm Ingram as Falstaff, placing himself at the intersection of comedy and dignity, enjoying full measure of the rascal’s bombast and braggadocio, convincing to the last. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen as this character.

If it’s not enough that Ariel Bock is excellent as both Queen and Quickly, she startles us with a third role – Justice Silence – that’s as funny as it is different from the other two. Johnny Lee Davenport also gets to shake out his formidable chops as he shifts between the low-class, scheming Poins and the war-mad Owain Glyndwr.

And Alex Sovronsky again does double duty as actor and sound designer, providing a period-sounding recorded score and performing onstage – he plays violuin and guitar, both of which are transformed in appearance to suit the production. 

Henry himself is a thankless role, giving less information to the actor than most of Shakespeare’s characters. Epstein imbues it with passion, but it’s often the passion of stillness. And he, too, finds transparency in the lines. “O God! that one might read the book of fate / And see the revolution of the times,” he says, and there’s not a shred of pomposity about it.

Well; that’s partly because the comely limbs of Neville (Tori Grace) are twining around his. What we lose in losing the Earl of Warwick – who is thus transformed – is more than compensated by the added sex appeal.

Whether or not you approve of the changes, you’ll applaud them because of the audacity of this production. It’s the only way to make such choices work, and Epstein triumphs in his triple role of adapter-director-actor because he has designers, cast and crew able to go as far out as he does on the audacity limb.

So don’t be shocked if Falstaff meets an unexpected end. So too does the whole production, and you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.

Henry IV, Parts I & II by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by Jonathan Epstein
Shakespeare & Co., Aug. 8

Metroland Magazine, 14 August 2014

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