BACK STAGE WEST
July 09, 1998
HENRY IV, PART ONE
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
at the Elizabethan Theatre
Aggressive modern-dress productions of Shakespearean classics are not a new thing for the venerable Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Indeed, in the Festival's beautiful indoor-thrust Angus Bowmer Theatre, as well as in its smaller black box space, the Black Swan, experimental takes on the Bard are practically de rigeur; now running in the Bowmer through October is Penny Metropulos' marvelous Peter Brook-meets-Magritte nightmare version of Midsummer, and opening this week in the Black Swan is fest director Libby Appel's seven-actor exploration of Measure for Measure.
But at the 1,200-seat Elizabethan Theatre, OSF's outdoor summer mainstage since its inception in 1935, such revisionings are a more recent departure: Tony Taccone's 1996 Coriolanus, which was more future-dress than modern-dress, and Kenneth Albers' Two Gents last year, set roughly in the 1940s, helped to pave the way for Michael Donald Edwards' new Henry IV, Part One. It is a triumph of modern-dress. Or, I should say, modern drag, not only because Edwards populates seedy Eastcheap with Ziggy Stardust androgynes (costumes by David Zinn) and imagines young Prince Hal (Dan Donohue) as a Vespa-riding glam punk, but because all this--as well as the strictly-business war rooms of the king and his men--represents less an update than an overlay.
Edwards hasn't set the action on Downing Street or asked us to see Hal as a young Kennedy chastened into public service--we can make those connections ourselves, if we choose. Instead, like Baz Luhrmann's invigorating youth film of Romeo & Juliet, this Henry IV uses contemporary correlatives to intensify the context of this reliable tale of military rivalry and the costs of manhood, not to refresh it (it needs none of that, thanks). Crucial for such a reinterpretation, William Bloodgood's scenic design perfectly suits the contemporary high/low contrasts without seeming glitzy or gimmicky.
Unlike Luhrmann, Edwards has actors who can handle the language. More than handle it--they grasp it, fondle it, fling it, sing it. John Pribyl, bearded and padded out like a Deadhead Oompa-Loompa, makes an especially shaggy, kvetchy Falstaff, while his band of lowlife compatriots--Andrew Borba's Bronx-pimp Gadshill, Richard Howard's white-trash Peto, Richard Farrell's gnarled-biker Bardolph, Kevin Kenerly's hell-for-leather Poins--are raggedy, knockabout droogs; they look like they wandered in off the set of Escape From New York. But not a salty word of the Bard's groundlings-aimed low comedy is lost, stretched though it is by regionalisms--or by anachronism, as when Charlie Kimball, as a dim barman, turns "Anon! Anon!" into drawling SoCal dudespeak.
The production's only wrong note is the casting of Michael Elich as the hothead Hotspur; Elich is too debonair, too sardonic, to convey Hotspur's volatility. His best scene is a cocktail colloquy in which he mocks the Welsh mysticism of Glendower (Barry Kraft); Elich, who's also playing a ripping good Charles Surface in School for Scandal at the Bowmer, seems most at home cracking witty in evening dress.
Donohue carries the day with his pale redhead glamour, his fresh, incisive line readings, his fluid physicality. If his Hal seems more reluctant to claim the heroic mantle than the calculating prodigal of Shakespeare's play, it may be because the director, an Australian, seems reluctant to claim the playwright's monarchial patrioteering. There's room for such ambivalence in Henry IV--it's not the jingo fest of Henry V, after all--and there's clearly room on the iconic Elizabethan stage for such a thrilling and sure-footed reinterpretation.
You'd think that for the old hands at OSF, a "straight" take on the Bard would seem even more sure-footed. But there is no traditional way to do the misbegotten Cymbeline, with its confused mix of periods and settings; if there's any Shakespeare play that needs a little atmospheric lift, a little textural nudge, it's this dense, almost humorless late "romance" (so called, apparently, because it's neither tragic nor comic). But director James Edmondson has instead, in the tradition of festival founder Angus Bowmer, trusted the material to inspire and compel. His Cymbeline does neither. Deborah Dryden's costumes split the difference between cute-medieval and faux Renaissance and end up looking off the rack, and most of the performances are numbingly one-note. Only Mark Murphey, as the put-upon valet Pisanio, and Ray Porter, effectively understated as the manipulative blackguard Iachimo, punch through the pallor; Aldo Billingslea, as the dully ambitious Cloten, briefly does the same until his mannered stutter wears out its welcome.
Director Kenneth Albers allows a similar vocal mannerism to cloy in his Comedy of Errors--the word "gold" becomes "go-wo-wold," in everyone's mouth--but Comedy is too exuberant, too innocently eager to please, to be spoiled by excess (including Albers' gratuitous trap-door stunts and Three Stooges slap fights). And one couldn't ask for more delightful performances than Catherine Lynn Davis' impish cherub of a Dromio, David Kelly and Ted Deasy's flustered Antipholus twins, Terrilynn Towns' sexy Luciana, Susan Champion's fiery-Latin courtesan (in a peacock costume, by Charles Berliner, that's a show unto itself), or the excellent straight-man work of Tony DeBruno. Among the seemingly infinite traditions the busy repertory actors of OSF can evoke, silent comedy is one. At its best, this fleet-footed Comedy is as giddy as a Mack Sennett two-reeler.
If it seems I praise Shakespeare only as filtered through pop culture references, I would suggest that Shakespeare may be the ultimate popular culture reference, and that the artists and audiences of OSF refer to it again and again with a fervor and intelligence unequalled in the American theatre.
"Henry IV, Part One," "Cymbeline," and "The Comedy of Errors," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Elizabethan Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland. June 9-Oct. 11. (541) 482-4331.