Monday, November 15, 2010

The Plantagenets go to war.
I went back to catch the first part of Henry IV at Actors' Shakespeare Project last weekend.  But I kind of wish I hadn't.  Their production of Part II at least had the difficulty of the play to excuse its gaps.  But despite Part I's relative vigor, the company still mostly went down for the count.  There were sparks here and there over the course of the evening - as there always are at ASP - but together they couldn't light a fire under this loud, but flat, production.

It was obvious why the show wasn't working - almost none of the emotional connections on which it depends were in place.  Hal and Falstaff seemed as distant as Hal and his father, Henry IV, so the whole prince-and-the-pauper contrast between license and responsibility (being in the tavern is fun; being at court, not so much) just wasn't happening; both options seemed like a drag.   It was pretty clear why Hal wasn't enjoying Falstaff's company, btw - this was the first Falstaff I've ever seen who didn't seem to be enjoying himself.  (So that wasn't happening.) And Hal didn't seem to like his other sidekick, Poins, much either  - and Poins returned the favor (and to be honest, so did we).  There was some rueful affection between Hotspur and Lady Percy, it's true - but Allyn Burrows is at least two decades too old for the role of Hotspur, and so the parallels between him and Prince Hal likewise never happened as they should (this Hotspur already seemed well-seasoned, and a better match to the crown than Barclay's Hal could ever be).  So I kept thinking, in scene after scene - "This just isn't happening."

Meanwhile the production seemed stuck in its historiography - adapter Robert Walsh (who also played Sir John) had appended to it scenes from Richard II which, I admit, gave some context to the conflicts embedded in the text - and particularly to the psychology of King Henry.  Still, the past-as-prologue stuff didn't seem to help things dramatically (undermining, perhaps, the conventional wisdom that it's the actual history that stands between modern audiences and these plays). Despite prompting from Richard II, Joel Colodner never convincingly connected the guilty dots regarding Henry's illegitimacy, and the rebel scenes, despite Burrows's solid work, and Steven Barkhimer's even-better turn as Glendower, didn't pull any extra oomph from the apparent legitimacy Walsh's additions seemed to provide them.

So how did this well-intentioned (and elaborate) effort go wrong?  Casting Walsh as Falstaff (and to a lesser extent, Barclay as Hal) probably is the root cause.  This oft-effective actor seemed to want to avoid all the usual clichés of this famous role; thus his was a reductive, not an expansive, Falstaff - a kind of wasted, misanthropic Vietnam vet (who, contrary to the text, still had some surly fight left in him) rather than  a jolly, mischievous glutton.  I suppose this counted as "interesting" in the rehearsal hall - and of course disillusionment (but not world-weariness) is key to the part.  But Walsh's perpetual, squinting hangover rarely got him anywhere on the actual stage, and it completely destroyed both the irony and the poignance of Shakespeare's grand arc: of course Hal would have to dump this loser, we knew from the start - and good riddance!  When Walsh intoned the famous line, "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!" all I could think was, "Uh - I don't think so."  Meanwhile director Patrick Swanson - who brought a great concept to bear on ASP's production of The Tempest - rarely shaped his scenes effectively, and the pace consistently dragged (until the war-drums began beating again, as they often did).

Sigh.  As Boston so rarely sees the history plays, it was disappointing to find this ambitious production such a misfire.  There was, as I mentioned, some good work around its edges.  Marya Lowry was a touchingly petulant Richard II, and Obehi Janice made a strong impression (as she usually does) in several smaller roles.  As noted, Barkhimer was wonderful as Glendower (as he had been as Justice Shallow in Part II; I longed to see him as Falstaff - he has the impish smarts).  Still, I think that ASP still refuses to realize that Shakespeare often depends not so much on individual performances as on a sense of ensemble - which, despite sharing, it seems, similar politics and ideas, these folks rarely manage to conjure.  The famous tavern scene threw this gap into sharp relief - despite some genuinely funny bits, it felt diffuse and out of focus (we'd never guess it's a turning point for Hal); looking around as it rambled through its course, you could see the individual actors immersed in their own performances ("What am I doing now?  How do I feel about this?") rather than contributing to group effects or responding to underlying themes.  This is, I admit, a persistent problem in American Shakespeare; assumptions left over from the heyday of the Method essentially short-circuit his symphonic intents.  But isn't it time the Actors' Shakespeare Project began to get beyond that?

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