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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Royal Family

Chimes at Midnight Dept.: Here’s my preview of the production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV now being presented at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, Mass. Review to follow at the end of the week.


MUCH AS THE ROYAL FAMILIES depicted in Henry IV celebrated marriage and consanguinity, so too does Shakespeare & Company’s current production of the play. Shakespeare wrote two plays to depict the title character, but Jonathan Epstein has combined and trimmed them into a single evening’s-worth of show. He also directed the production and plays Henry IV.

Jonathan Epstein, Ariel Bock, Ben Epstein,
and Henry Clarke. Photo by B. A. Nilsson
His wife, Ariel Bock, has the plum role of Mistress Quickly; their son, Ben Epstein, makes his Mainstage debut as Francis. Also in the cast are Henry Clarke as Prince Hal, Kevin Coleman, Johnny Lee Davenport, Malcolm Ingram and composer Alexander Sovronsky, among others.

The company lately has been featuring more of Shakespeare’s history plays, and Jonathan, now in his 22nd season there, believes that the time is right for this Henry. “There’s an audience that’s ready for it,” he says.” They just had a success with it down in Washington, D.C., but that audience is used to sitting for three hours and finding forty minutes of it enjoyable and the rest educational, because they’re used to the government.

“Our audience is already well-educated, and they want the liveliness and vividness of it to be high. Cutting down Part One makes it move like a tidal wave. Cutting Part Two to an hour and 20 minutes, it moves more like the tide. Three hours of Part Two would strain our audience–and I think it would strain us.”

As a director, Epstein is insightful and collaborative. As actor Robert Lohbauer, playing the Lord Chief Justice, works a scene in the rehearsal room, Epstein helps sharpen what’s already an impressive interpretation. “Take out any sense of justification,” he suggests. “It’s not about right and wrong. It’s what happened. The thing to do is go lower in your body with it.”

The production plays freely with notions of time and space, with swords and cell phones among the accessories. “We’re picking the time that makes the scene jump most for me,” says Epstein, “and I’m asking the actors to invest their imaginations in making that time real. For instance, there’s a scene in which I’m looking for Prince Hal, and I ask Benjamin, who’s playing Hal’s younger brother. He says, “Somewhere in London,” and I ask, “Who’s he with?” Ben laughs and says, “Falstaff,” because he sees a picture from Instagram or Twitter or whatever. At the same time, I’m asking the actors to be legitimately scared when someone pulls a sword, which doesn’t much happen in contemporary London.

“It’s great fun for me,” says Kevin Clarke, who plays Hal. “I like the given circumstances to be as rich as possible, and that it’s a world that includes swords and guns and cell phones encourages great imagination with the language, because it opens a lot of doors.”

Adds Epstein, “We’re creating a real foundation for each of these scenes and each of these different worlds. And, quite frankly, we’re doing it this way to save on the expense of the costumes, which would be tremendous.”

“But it also underscores that Shakespeare’s plays are set in the text,” says Clarke, “so there’s no crying poor on that. Costumes help, and the setting is important, but the time and the place–and the emotions and ideas–are in the language.”

Henry IV runs through the end of August at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox, Mass.). For more info, go to or call (413) 637-3353.

Metroland Magazine, 7 August 2014

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