Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Henry IV, Part One
In addition to culling the core of Shakespeare's opus, this Henry IV is unique in that it is cast entirely with women. The radiant Sha Cage (recently crowned with a 2015 Ivey Award for last year's Grounded) plays Prince Hal, the focal point as the character who evolves most profoundly. Seven other actresses, each playing multiple roles, cover the other characters in this history play. As it began, I wondered what accommodation might be made for this shift in gender. The answer is none at all. Ten minutes in, I ceased altogether thinking I was watching a woman playing Prince Hal, or King Henry, or Falstaff, but was watching Hal, Henry, and Falstaff themselves. The only difference might be that their emotions feel more accessible, less guarded, than is typically projected by male actors.
The play tells of Henry IV's consolidation of power. Having seized the throne after overthrowing Richard II, Henry's reign is immediately challenged by a coalition made up of the Earl of Northumberland and his son Harry Percy (known as Hotspur); Mortimer, whose family lineage held a claim to the throne; The Douglas, a warrior-chief of the Scots; and Owen Glendower, self-proclaimed Prince of Wales. King Henry turns to his son Harry Monmouth, known as Prince Hal, to join the fight against their enemies. But callow Hal has not yet matured into his responsibilities as scion of a royal family. His time is spent drinking and cavorting with his buddies, most notably the perpetually inebriated Sir John Falstaff. Their recreation pursuits extend even to the point of committing highway robbery.
Hal's lack of interest or preparation in the "manly arts" of war are the subject of great derision by Hotspur, who relishes the chance to cut down his enemy. Once summoned by his father, however, Hal takes stock of his filial duties. He would prefer peaceful solutions to the threat to his father's reign, but as the need arises, takes arms and fights with valor, entreating his band of followers, Falstaff included, to do likewise. It is not revealing anything that is not written in history texts to say that Hal proves a worthy warrior, Henry IV prevails against the rebels, and Prince Hal in time becomes King Henry V.
Two themes run clearly through Ten Thousand Things' production. One is Hal's transition from a playful youth, avoiding the onset of adulthood, into a responsible and heroic leader. Different events can prompt anyone to take the leap into adulthood, be they adversity or an inspiration to greater ambitions. In this Henry IV there are elements of both. Hal recognizes the rebellion as a threat to his own security, but also is moved by his father's unwavering commitment to unified dominion.
The second theme is the waste and destruction brought about by war. As things turn out, the war is launched on false pretenses, resulting in many deaths and much suffering. Pride and ambition are confused with moral stature, and power attained by means of war sooner or later invites retribution and rebellion. The victors then call for vigilant defense and, as military history has repeatedly borne out, many in power believe that the best defense is a good offense. Whether this was Shakespeare's theme or the result of Hensley's paring down the text, the futility of war is made apparent.
In spite of its harsh depiction of war and gritty reckoning of English history, there is much humor in Henry IV, Part One, almost all of it attributable to Falstaff. He is an alcoholic, a loafer, a braggart, and con man, yet quite endearing and good for many hearty laughs. One can understand how a young Prince Hal, even knowing that the day will come when he must play the part of his father's son, would relish the company of such a pleasure-seeking companion.
The performances are flawless. Sha Cage, at first a strutting, hedonistic Prince Hal, literally transforms in her physical bearing as well as her line reading, into a noble warrior. Karen Wiese-Thompson applies her comedic gifts to draw every possible laugh out of Falstaff's abominable behavior. We may not like this buffoon, but we sure enjoy his buffoonery. Michelle Barber is a truly fierce King Henry, unwavering in his conviction that what is good for him is good for all of Britain. In a small role, Barber is the put-upon Mistress Quickly, who operates the tavern where Hal, Falstaff and company run up their bar tabs.
Anna Sundberg plays Hotspur with the force of a live firecracker, seething with energy and antagonism, as well as Peto, one of Hal's boon companions. George Keller as Bardolph, Austene Van as Gadshill and Meghan Kreidler as Poins complete Hal's group of partiers. Each creates a distinctive and engaging character. Thomasina Petrus plays Sir Walter Blunt, right hand counsel to the King, with calm dignity. In addition to Sundberg's Hotspur, the House of Northumberland comprises Northumberland, played by George Keller with righteous anger; Austene Van as Worcester, Hotspur's uncle who is a sly strategist; and Hotspur's wife Kate, played by Meghan Kreidler with the wrath of a woman left behind by the heedless ambitions of men. Kreidler also plays the rebel Mortimer, and Keller portrays Owen Glendower of Wales and The Douglas of Scotland, varying her brogues accordingly.
The costume designs are wonderful combinations of capes, tunics, sashes and head gear, including a beautifully grafted gold crown for King Henry. In a stroke of genius the groups are color codedthe court of King Henry in gold, the tavern crew in black, the House of Northumberland in burgundy, and so ongreatly aiding the audience in telling who is who, especially as actors quickly change from one character to another. The set is spare, typical of a Ten Thousand Things production, a keg on its side representing the tavern and a metallic map showing England, Scotland, Northumberland, Wales, and Ulster is wheeled about, with magnetic arrows and stars to show the seats of power and movement of forces. Brilliant!
Peter Vitale's sound and music is a constant companion to the action, using percussion and synthesizer to create signature sounds for various components of the play. The lighting is standard fare Ten Thousand Things: all the lights left fully on, illuminating both stage and audience. Ubiquitous fight choreographer Annie Enneking brings a balletic quality to the battle scenes, full of both grace and danger.
Casting the play entirely with womenand a racially diverse cast as wellpresents the proposition that the behaviors of these characters, from virtuous to sinister, valorous to cowardly, are all within the spectrum of the human condition, belonging to no gender, race, or nationality. This message of inclusion fits hand in glove with Ten Thousand Things Theater's mission of performing for broadly diverse audiences. To be sure, this is a production that can be cherished by any audience, those new to the theater and veteran theatergoers alike.
Henry IV, Part One plays through November 1, 2015, at The Open Book, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $30.00, Pay what you can, $5.00 and up, for those under 30. Community Performances are scheduled at various times and locations, tickets are free but reservations are required. For tickets call 612-203-9502 or go to www.tenthousandthings.org.
Writer: William Shakespeare; Director: Michelle Hensley; Music and Sound Director: Peter Vitale; Costumes: Trevor Bowen; Sets: Stephen Mohring; Fight Coach: Annie Enneking; Production Manager: Nancy Waldoch; Assistant Director/Production Intern: Per Janson.
Cast: Michelle Barber (King Henry IV, Mistress Quickly, a traveler), Sha Cage (Prince Hal), George Keller (Northumberland, Owen Glendower, The Douglas), Meghan Kreidler (Poins, Kate, Mortimer), Thomasina Petrus (Sir Walter Blunt, sheriff, a traveler), Anna Sundberg (Peto, Hotspur), Austene Van (Gadshill, Worcester), Karen Wiese-Thompson (Sir John Falstaff, a messenger).