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Theater Review
by Perry Bialor

In Love with Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's "Henry IV"
(Parts I & II condensed by Bradford Brown)
Presented by Ring of Fire Productions
The Flamboyan Theater (Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center)
107 Suffolk Street, New York
October 27 through November 5th, 2000 (closed)
Reviewed by Perry Bialor November 4th, 2000
Ring of Fire Productions' three-hour condensation of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I" and "Henry IV, Part II," was the company's debut performance. This version concentrates on the rogue, Sir John Falstaff, by eliminating much of the political matters of Part II that does not concern Falstaff--even to the exclusion of the famous, moving scene of the misunderstanding and reconciliation between the dying king and his son and heir, Prince Hal, over the latter's assumption of the crown when he prematurely assumes that the fatally ill, but sleeping, king had already died. Shakespeare's five acts in 13 scenes in Part I is slightly condensed into two acts in 16 scenes; his five acts in 18 scenes with prolog and epilog of Part II is shortened into Act 3 with 8 scenes. The shape of the adaptation, nevertheless, balances the political and the comic, with Falstaff in the forefront.

Overall, the presentation and acting were well done (or well enough done) and provided a demonstration, once again (if that were necessary), that Shakespeare can still be effectively performed on a small stage when the acting is vivid, the recitation neither mumbled nor affected. and the mise en scene minimal, leaving much to the imagination of a receptive audience to provide "the world." The success of this presentation owed much to the masterful comic performance of John Kinsman in the centerpiece role of Falstaff and to those who played the minor character roles (Dan Burrows, Russell Hankin, Ben Killberg, John Murray, Brent Vimtrup). Michael Poignand, did a credible, but unnuanced, Prince Hal (the future Henry V) without benefit of an adequate change of costume (from cad to king) and in shoes that he must have found in an alley.

According to Bradford Brown, the director: "In this production, the timeless truths of Shakespeare's text are brought into a high-stakes virtual-game world in which players are rewarded for skill in politics and warfare." As an aspect of the desire to harness "technological advancements" and to appeal to a youthful, mindless (or amnesiac) audience, the company also employs "cross-gender casting, an unconventional set, and quasi-futuristic costuming"--as if the history of 20th century theater hadn't already employed all of these freshly re-discovered devices, making their use in this instance somewhat amateurish, timid, and, in the case of the video game introduction and ending (intended as an analogy to life itself), transparently irrelevant to the Shakespearean realism of the body of the performance.

Having announced certain personal reservations, I wish to state that it is not the use of these ploys that matters but how effective or detracting they were for the presentation. The enlarged talking-head of Henry IV (Michael Salconi) on a large segmented screen, elevating the king to superhuman proportion, fit well with the status of the king and was well integrated with the other action (the same actor's "live" appearance in the secondary role of the Chief Justice was, I fear, much less convincing than his facial acting on the screen). The screen was also effectively used as a backdrop for the battle scenes, extras crossing swords in the background while live fighting occupied the stage. The so-called "futuristic costuming" and makeup consisted mainly of the application of a green patch microchip on the actors' temples (beginning/ending), a sweatshirt and baggy pants, creased at the knees, for Prince Henry, a natty military dress (a la Star Trek) for Prince John, and a body suit and a black stripe across the eye sockets for Hotspur. Completely superfluous!--considering that the analogy was meaningless, and the realistic costumes of Sir John Falstaff, Mistress Quickly and Douglas, among others, were more effective. The sword play scenes were well choreographed and acted.

Thank God for little favors. Cross-gender casting did not extend to a male in the role of Mistress Quickly that was, in fact, played deliciously, that is, outlandishly by Julie Thaxter-Gourlay. (Of course, Shakespeare's "women" were all played by boys and Japanese Kabuki females are traditionally played only by men--but that was then and there, and this is now.) "Serious" cross-gender casting in this presentation apparently applied only to females playing male characters: Amanda Hueting as Hotspur, Jody Carlson as Prince John, and Juniper Berolzheimer as Worcester, all of whom doubled as guards and travellers. But can they be taken seriously? (Was it an artistic decision--or was it an ideological one or merely a strategic one--needing to give parts to female members of the company in a play that is lop-sidedly male, especially after cutting out the role of Hotspur's wife and most of Part II?). Prince John was wooden, Worcester slouched, resulting in an indifferent non-presence. A lackadaisical approach was not limited to females. David O'Kelley, as Sir Walter Blunt/Thomas Duke of Clarence, seemed apologetic for being on stage. Steve Schattenberg as Northumberland escaped my attention. Hotspur, however, is a major role and requires the right balance of audacity and authenticity, especially as the other major roles, Falstaff and Hal, were essentially realistically portrayed. Instead, Hotspur was performed as a caricature of unbridled energy--more than a bit over the edge, at times, embarrassingly so, as it was often difficult to view Hotspur as anything but a female in a body suit fresh off the treadmill. (How "Hotspur" may have emoted in scenes with his wife--cut out of the condensation--is anybody's guess.)

This production is now history. One may anticipate that in its next production, the company will be modestly innovative and will do a credible job that holds one's attention for its earnestness and energy. The actors/actresses are, for the most part, young and will gain dramatic experience in the process. [PABialor]

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