Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Shakespeare's sequel

Shakespeare only wrote one real sequel - Henry IV, Part II, which may be the most difficult play in the canon to pull off. This is partly because the history of this history play is obscure to modern audiences (it follows the death throes of the rebellion that reached its climax in Henry IV, Part I).  But the drama is doubly problematic because it's so very much a sequel to a greater, more vigorous work. Part II follows the schema of Part I quite closely - sometimes scene by scene - yet offers a kind of dark variation on it.  Everything in Part II has declined from its state in Part I - Mistress Quickly's tavern is now a brothel, the king is almost bed-ridden, Hal's sour practical jokes barely come off, and even the rebellion is undone by trickery rather than bravery.  The tone of all this is brilliant - sometimes cynical in the mode of Jonson, but at other times elegiac in a manner that is uniquely Shakespeare's.   But when you ponder that Part I is also a thicket of complexity - it's a chronicle play and a coming-of-age tale, and yet also features a titanic character, Falstaff, who looms over everything in terms of theme but is only a bit player in the story - you realize that a melancholy variation on that plot can easily turn into a muddle.

Which explains why the play is almost never done as a stand-alone evening; it's generally presented in edited form, and interpolated with Part I, as Trinity did in a fairly-successful production a few years back.  (In fact, this is the first time I've seen Henry IV, Part II in its entirety in thirty years.)  Thus the Actors' Shakespeare Project has to be congratulated for its bravery in doing the whole darn thing, in repertory with Part I - indeed, more than the whole darn thing, as adapter Robert Walsh (who also plays Falstaff) has book-ended the production with a prologue from Part I and various bits of Henry V to give its arc more context.

Alas, I don't think he succeeded in doing that - nor was I impressed with his somewhat-flat Falstaff.  I was likewise a bit under-whelmed by Bill Barclay as his foil, Prince Hal; the two had little chemistry - and this is a huge failing in any production of Henry IV because it undermines the power of the play's conclusion (Hal's rejection of his former companion).  Still, Barclay had his moments on his own, and struck a few sparks with Joel Colodner, who probably did the production's best dramatic work as the failing Henry IV. Even he, however, missed the poetic dimension of his best speeches, and another key role - the Lord Chief Justice - was given to an actor, Jonathan Louis Dent, who has promise but nothing like the gravitas the part requires.  Perhaps the production still could have succeeded, given these gaps, if director Patrick Swanson had some strong conceptual gambit up his sleeve (as he had with this troupe's version of The Tempest), but apparently he just didn't (although there were a few moments, such as a slow trudge of wounded soldiers through one scene, that had the right kind of mood). And the  ASP's usual grab-bag of costumes and props only made the historical pageant aspect of the show seem even more scattered than it otherwise would.

Still, I was unable to catch Part I prior to Part II, and perhaps the performances of Walsh and Barclay, along with other decisions, will make more sense once I've seen the whole thing.  As it stands, this production does catch fire in its smaller performances (which generally align with Shakespeare's sharpest sketches).  There was strong work from Bobbie Steinbach as Mistress Quickly, and Allyn Burrows (the company's artistic director) made a hilariously gonzo Pistol, while Steve Barkhimer came up with a nicely addled Justice Shallow.  There were other good moments, in even smaller roles, from the reliable Obehi Janice and Michael Forden Walker.  The production could still come together, I think, and after I've seen the whole thing, I may offer some second thoughts.

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