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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
King Henry IV, Part I
Shakespeare as played by Shakespeare & Company on its outdoor Main Stage is an experience unlike any other. To see a large cast of Shakespeare regulars plus a contingent of Shakespeare Institute students romp around the multi-level stage and the surrounding woods is a not-to-be-missed happening. It's a spacious and romantic stage but not an easy one for the actors to navigate. It also calls upon vocal resources that only a few of the Company members have.
Henry the IV , the current Main Stage production, typifies the best and worst of this particular brand of Shakespeare. Directors Tina Packer and Kevin Coleman take full advantage of the Oxford Court Theater's inherently dramatic atmosphere, (which deepens with the help of the great lighting designer in the sky). The directors, abetted by movement director Susan Dibble, send the players running and shouting up and down the paths at either side of the beach chairs set up for the audience, disappearing and reappearing from the deeper recesses of the surrounding woods with much shouting and clanking of swords. More--shouting, running, sword play--is definitely preferable to less.
The play's final fight scenes. (overseen by Tony Simotes), provides a veritable feast of grunting and groaning sword wielding. (I saw it on the same night as nearby Tanglewood's annual Tanglewood On Parade Festivities which culminate in the bombastic finale of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture followed by fire works--which coincided with the battle scenes, lending an unexpected touch of additional sturm and drang). The parallel coming-of age stories of young Prince Hal and Harry Hotspur combined with the various doings amongs political factions and merry pranksters lend themselves perfectly to moving the focus around the deep-reaching stage and the woods. John Pennoyer's handsome costume and Michael Gianitti's lighting contributed towards making , the production a visual treat.
The actors are, with a few exceptions, more energetic than expert in fully expressing the more subtle shades of Shakespeare's characters or delivering their lines with true Shakespearian grandeur. The standout performers with whom Packer and Coleman have blessed themselves are a superb Hal (Allyn Burrows) and golden-voiced Falstaff (Jonathan Epstein). Burrows is physically and emotionally persuasive and moving as the at first dissolute and eventually heroic Hal. Epstein plays the fat man with panache. His Falstaff, like " the chocolate soldier," in the recently revived George Bernard Shaw play Arms and the Man (see our review), clearly and powerfully argues that there's little honor in being a dead hero: "To die, is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfiet of a man, who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying, when a man thereby liveth, is to be no coutnerfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed. The better part of valor is discretion, in the which better part I have saved my life. "
Thanks to Epstein's resonant delivery, this much quoted declaration about honor resonates with power and meaning.
With Burrows and DanMcCleary so successfully paired in Betrayal , (see our review), I can understand why directors Packer and Coleman would enlist them for a different type of sparring as Harry and Hotspur. Unfortunately, the atttitude of peevish and surpressed anger that served McCleary well as the cuckolded husband in Betrayal, works less successfully for his Hotspur. His dying speech is nevertheless one of the more heartwrenching moments of this production. With his head cradled in Harry's, we grasp sadness of youth's passing--one in death, the other into a wiser and sadder world of adulthood. The rest of the performers are fine as an ensemble but none except Harry and Falstaff can really be singled out for memorable emotional or voice delivery.
While this Henry IV may not be the most memorable production you'll ever see, given the very special flavor and enthusiasm that prevails at all of Shakespeare and Company's performances, it is nevertheless likely to provide you with one of the summer's most enjoyable evenings. If you go, as you should (especially if you've never been to Oxford Court), bring your own heating equipment--sweaters, jackets and blankets. And don't forget the bug repellent, though one of the roving company members will spray you with herbal repellents (your money serving as a donation for the always needy company).
For other Shakespeare plays reviewed at CurtainUp see our Shakespeare Page