Sunday, May 28, 2006

shakespeare marathon

h iv pts 1&2
Originally uploaded by suttonhoo.
The trouble with loving something like a play too much is that you’ve (let’s be honest here: I) have decided how the thing should play out. So it is with Henry IV.

Some folks are all over Lear, Hamlet, or those two Italian brats** – I’m just wild about Harry. Especially Part One. And after hearing on the WBEZ morning show, 848, that the conjoined production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, directed by Barbara Gaines, was playing to happy houses and was on its way to the UK at the invitation of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I figured the six hour investment might pay off. (And it didn’t hurt that my darlin’ companion was game – for a price, of course. But it’s barters like these that keep a marriage interesting.)

The next question that begs to be answered is: did it?

Well. Let’s get this much straight: The playwright certainly knew what he was doing.

There was a bit of a glitch with the production we saw – the regular Falstaff had fallen ill, and the understudy stepped in. It wasn’t clear from Gaines’ introduction whether or not we got the expected understudy or whether one of the other players stepped in to fill out the role. Either way, our Falstaff walked the stage with a script in hand. He was facile enough to pull it off, but it managed to break the fourth wall with repeated brutality. I supposed if it had been printed on something approximating parchment – rather than 8½ x 11 bright white printer paper with yellow highlights – maybe it would have felt more apiece.

But I’m not sure that that was what stood in the way of what, for me, is the most compelling piece of these plays. Hal was played a bit heavy and, I thought, one-dimensionally – as a bit of a dick, actually. (A very pretty dick, but very much a dick.) The piece missing was the filial love that, when played well, extends between the errant Prince and the faulty Falstaff. It’s that affection, and the alliances forged from it, that makes so poignant the gorgeous “base contagious clouds” soliloquy near the beginning of Part I, and so devastating the pentultimate scene in Part II.

None of that happened last night.

But what we lacked for poignancy and devastation, we made up for in the deft skill of a well-played play. The troupe knew what they were doing; dad Harry was brilliant; the throw-away scene in which the Welsh bride sings her goodbyes to her prince -- and is usually little more than a foil for Hotspur to get a little nookie from his sweetie before he heads off to war – had me shaking with sobs.

One last little irritation: due to the spare stage design (intended, I expect, to travel well to the UK), mist is heavily used in this production to create atmosphere and effect. Mist, of course, is wet, and the cumulative effect of sitting in the front row for 5½ hours under continual mist was not unlike encountering the well-known Chicago lake effect that brings the mean temperature down ten degrees within a certain radius of Lake Michigan.

The verdict: If Shakespeare’s language makes you ache, you won’t be disappointed in the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Henry IV. Go – but be sure to bundle up.

**Re the Italian brats: I’m going for effect here, of course. I cared enough about Juliet’s suffering when I was in high school that I memorized her death scene for no good reason and replayed it over and over to an audience of one (me) in our unfinished basement. Of course, had I known that the duct work was carrying my death throes into my brothers’ room I might have been more discreet.

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