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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Henry IV Parts 1 & 2
By Elyse Sommer
As people who don't like director Doyle's work may not love his newly conceived production, so Shakespeare purists may quibble with Epstein's pared down version — especially its inclusion of anachronisms like cell phones, pistols and references to the Berkshires ("It's better here in Gloucesttershire than the Berkshires — less traffic"), deletion of some characters and re-assigned text.
That said, this is a wonderfully accessible, visually exciting and splendidly performed theatrical experience. Whether you're familiar with the play or not, this adaptation makes the relationship of the young Hal with his stern father and the father-figure dominating his rebellious, carousing days perfectly clear.
Epstein, a superb actor with many contemporary as well as Shakespearean roles to add stars to his resume, himself plays King Henry. Another Shakespeare & Company veteran, Malcolm Ingram, is a stellar Falstaff and the role of young Hal showcases an impressively compelling younger actor, Henry Clarke. This pivotal trio brings out every bit of humor and drama in this story of a young man's growth from a rebel without commitment to anything but fun to responsible adulthood.
But the main players aren't the only ones who help to make these three hours pretty much fly by. The versatile cast consists of a baker's dozen of seasoned and new company members. They handle almost two dozen characters' wild carousing, sizzling sex scenes as well as the play's political conflicts with clarity and panache.
Epstein's directorial choices are visionary in all the right ways. While the role he plays is secondary to that of Hal and Falstaff, his King is nevertheless unforgettably imposing. While his command of Shakespeare's text is impeccable, he's also a master of unspoken performance, as memorably evident here in a scene when he confronts his son in the London tavern where Falstaff holds court.
This innovative new look at a troublesome but important play in the Bard's canon, is also a family appear. Ariel Bock, who's Epstein's wife, is very much on scene in the added-on role of the regal Queen Joanna, as well as a feisty and funny Mistress Quickly and a hialrious deaf Justice Silence. Establishing a solid foothold in the "family business" there's their son Benjamin Epstein deftly taking on the important role of the king's younger son,Prince John, as well as being part of the ensemble.
While the father-son relationship and the comic business revolving around Falstaff's "court" dominates, the political aspects are in place, but speeded up. Henry IV (Epstein) still faces the growing emnity of his former supporters, the Percy clan (Kevin G. Coleman, Michael J. Toomey, Timothy Adam Venable and Alexander Sovronsky), and their formidable Welsh relative (Johnny Lee Davenport). And so in addition to the focus on the comedy and father-son relationship, count on plenty of the sort of confrontations that would be heavily "tweeted" along with the funny business in Falstaff's world.
Travis George has created one of the most inventive sets I've seen in the Tina Packer Playhouse. A sandbox like dropped area facilitates the actors movements and up and down flying set pieces create yet another level of visual richness. Actor Arthur Oliver's costumes are incredibly gorgeous and help to differentiate the multiple characters being played. Actor Michael T. Toomey donned his fight choreographer's hat long enough to devise some breathtaking fight scenes. Fight as well as fun scenes are smoothly supervised by movement director Susan Dibble and Alexander Sovronsky, who like Toomey also performs, has contributed lovely incidental music.
I very much liked the way Epstein has bookended the play, with the opening, having the aging King rising from his death bed to tell the story, and ultimately returning to another version of that scene. Typical of most Shakespeare productions at this venue, an alls well epilogue has the entire company dancing on stage. And Shakespeare buffs and won't want to miss dancing as fast as they can see these history plays in a single sitting. The clearly delivered, accessible text, modern touches and colorful stagecraft also make it a good introduction to the Bard that even theater goers as young as eleven or twelve can enjoy.