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The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V

A Shakespeare Stew: Dice Four Plays,
Add Salt, Mix It All Up, Serve Hot

WSC Avant Bard, Artisphere Black Box Theater, Arlington, Va.
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Adapted and Directed by Tom Mallan

production picture
From left, Melissa B. Robinson, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Kari Ginsburg, Cam Magee are the prostitutes who perform in burlesque shows at the Boars Head Inn in The Mistorical Hystery of Henry I(V). Photo by C. Stanley Photography, WSC Avant Bard.

Tom Mallan did not set out to improve Shakespeare as he combined and rearranged not two (Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2), not three (plus Henry V), but four (plus Richard II) plays into one play. He set out to do two things: Tell the story of Prince Hal coming to grips with his life’s predetermined duty, and present a device to cast more women in a Shakespeare history. Thus, the play is set in an Edwardian-era Eastcheap brothel where the prostitutes put on burlesque parodies of the days’ real news.

On so many levels, some people may find the premise offensive, not the least of whom would be Shakespeare purists. I approach any production with Shakespeare’s name attached to it with two simple criteria: Is it good theater, and is it good Shakespeare? The answer for WSC Avant Bard’s The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V is definitely yes to the former, and surprisingly yes to the latter. Although single speeches may include verse from two or three different characters in two or three different plays, Mallan didn’t merely run the four histories through a shredder, scatter the pieces and then tape it all back nilly Willy into a new whole. With the ear of a veteran Shakespearean, Mallan threaded the individual parts into an interesting tapestry that revealed much about the central character in three of Shakespeare’s plays (and gets a key mention in Richard II).

Those revelations can be challenged on their merits, yes. Nevertheless, Prince Hal (Jay Hardee) took us on an interesting journey of a gay man luxuriating in a licentious lifestyle until an attack on his self-esteem goads him into pursuing his destiny. Turning his back on not only Falstaff but his lover, Poins, he ended up a fascist ruler putting the nation on a path to world war while cruelly suppressing the licentiousness he so recently reveled in. I’m not going to debate the merits of that interpretation of the character of Hal in this review for that is the story Mallan found, though I've never seen that Hal. I'll restrict my discussion to the stagecraft and juxtapositions that made this production so intriguing.

However, before I do that, I will debate the other premise upon which Mallan crafted his adaptation. Risking the label of chauvinist, I’m growing weary of the cry that Shakespearean theater lacks sufficient opportunities for women. Shakespeare had boys and men playing women, and somehow his audience accepted that device (or, at least, accepted that it was a theatrical device), so there’s no reason modern audiences cannot accept as a theatrical device the reverse casting, women playing men. This tradition has a two-centuries-long history, and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., practices cross-casting constantly to great effect (usually with no effect on the character, sometimes with wonderful theatrical effect). Alternatively, many male roles can become female roles, as WSC itself cleverly and effectively did in its Richard III last year. My answer to removing barriers to women in Shakespearean theater is good casting and open-minded approach to various roles. Another option, I guess, is to cast seven actresses as prostitutes spuriously playing King Henry IV, Richard II, and Hotspur.

Having ranted thus, I applaud the burlesquing prostitutes as a key piece of this Mistorical Hystery, not only thematically but also in performance. The ensemble was so strong its members are worth mentioning individually: Anna Brungardt as Joan Double playing Rumour and Stafford; Ashley DeMain as Ann Garter playing Rumour and Douglas; Kari Ginsburg as Doll Tearsheet playing Henry IV; Cam Magee as Mistress Quickly playing Richard II and Northumberland; Melissa B. Robinson as Patience playing Worcester; Sarah Olmsted Thomas as Jane Nightwork playing Glendower; Connor J. Hogan as transvestite Francis playing Scroop and Lady Percy; and Sara Barker as Mistress Silence playing Hotspur, a performance that made me want to see her cast as Hotspur straight up in a by-the-book Henry IV, Part 1.

At this Boars Head Tavern the women performed their burlesques under Falstaff’s direction and concluded each show singing, “Now comes in the sweetest morsel of the night,” whereupon they paired up with customers and slipped off to back chambers. The burlesque shows played under a screen displaying newsreel footage of the political events the women were parodying. The juxtaposition was an interesting depiction of truth in reporting, like running CNN and Comedy Central on a split screen—which is the more accurate presentation of newsmakers and the news they make? This theme got tweaked, though, in Hal’s defeat of Hotspur, which had a more heroic playing on the brothel stage than what we saw in the newsreel (a commentary on the MSNBC and Fox News spinning their favored newsmakers to heroic status, perhaps?).

For the first half of the play Hal was openly cavorting with Poins (James Finley) and enjoying the shows even as they poked fun at his absence from court and his falling out of favor with his father. Upon the plays shifting to Hotspur’s emergence, Hal grew indignant and revolted from his Eastcheap life to join his father’s fight and recover his place in the government. Ultimately feeling out of place in both worlds, once crowned he headed to the extreme right as a leader of a new world order. Meantime, Justice Shallow, working for the Lord Chief Justice and, as smoothly shrewdly played by Frank Britton (he had us fooled), only feigning the doddering old codger reminiscing on his young days as a boon companion to Falstaff, managed a sting operation that entrapped the whole Boars Head crew, all of whom were ultimately denied by the new King Henry V.

Production photoJay Hardee, left, as Prince Hal and Christopher Henley as Falstaff in the WSC Avant Bard's production of The Mistorical Hystery of Henry I(V). In addition to Hal's adopted father figure, Henley played Hal's real father, Henry IV. Photo by C. Stanley Photography, WSC Avant Bard.

Yes, to fully appreciate this Mistorical Hystery you had to throw out your previous experience with Shakespeare’s characters. Pistol (Sun King Davis), for instance, also was one of the Lord Chief Justice’s officers. He delivered the news of Hal’s ascension in threatening tones to the captured whores and thieves rather than as the excited ramblings of the deluded cipher at the end of Henry IV, Part 2. Falstaff was not the lovable fat knight of lore. Christopher Henley played him as Oliver Twist’s Fagin with a touch of Cabaret’s Emcee. Wearing checkered pants, a felt-lined red coat, and greasy, long black hair, this Falstaff was an erudite Victorian gangster and pimp, stage-managing not only the burlesques but the scams robbing the Boars Head customers.

Henley doubled as the real Henry IV, and his lecture to a hungover Hal presented us not merely a political machine embarrassed and threatened by his son but a father truly disappointed in where his son of so much potential was heading. In a tour de force portrayal that was both authoritative and tender, he applied tough love to urge Hal to at least see the wider worldview of the role he was born into.

You also had to accept that while the lines were Shakespeare’s, the script was Mallan’s, and a character from Henry IV, Part 2 might be speaking the lines of a different character in, say, Henry V. This was disconcerting at times, like the ladies making a silly song out of Richard II’s deeply despairing speech of “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.” However, Falstaff’s most famous speech crackled with soul-searing relevance as he responded to Hal, who was distancing himself from the Eastcheap crowd by insisting he needed to join the fight against Hotspur as a matter of honor and assuming that the prostitutes and thieves could never understand this need. “What is honor?” Falstaff rounded on Hal. Henley continued the speech in the assertive tone—not an ounce of comedy—of a man who had lived on the edge of destruction all his life speaking to a coddled pup who hadn’t a clue of how dangerous everyday society could be for the middle and lower class masses.

And what is Shakespeare? Shakespeare is moments like these. Call it out of context if you will, but Mallan showed that Shakespeare’s contexts stretch far wider than our imaginations sometimes dare to consider.

Eric Minton
November 21, 2011

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