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History Spectacular

a Classic Collection
CATEGORY : DRAMA
by William Shakespeare

COMPANY : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
VENUE : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
ID# 832

SHOWING : November 07, 2003 - December 07, 2003

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION


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REVIEWS

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Epic Undertaking
by Dedalus
Friday, December 5, 2003
4.0
Shakespeare Tavern's History Spectacular, ending this week, features full productions of "Richard II," "Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2," and "Henry V." I've been posting my individual reviews on the forum feature, and am now glad of the opportunity to share my thought here on the main site.

I thought this series was the most ambitious project of classical theatre I've seen in Atlanta since I moved here 5 years ago. The Tavern brought these plays alive as no classroom discussion ever could, and I am in awe of the volume and quality of work the individual actors brought to the series.

That being said, I believe the final play could have used another week of rehearsal, and few martial digressions from the text to end the series on an exciting note. I also felt that too many of the supporting players short-changes multiple characterization opportunities, with the result that many minor characters were ciphers or confusing copies of other roles played by the same actors.

For the opposite, GREAT work on multiple characters was done by Maurice Ralston, Jeff McKerley, Tony Brown, Laura Cole and Jackie Prucha. And, although I thought he faltered somewhat in the last chapter, Brik Berkes deserves special praise for giving us a Prince Hal / King Henry of depth, humor, honor, and intelligence.

So, for those who don't like diving into the forum, here are my reviews of the individual plays:


RICHARD II

EPIC BEGINNING
****

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company at the New American Shakespeare Tavern this week embarks on an epic mission -- a "mini-series" of four sequential History plays. I had the pleasure of seeing last night's "Richard II," and, if the rest of the series follows form, this will be an achievement unprecedented in the Tavern's history.

"Richard II" succeeds primarily for two reasons -- Jeff McKerley and Maurice Ralston. Their performances as antagonists King Richard and Henry Bolingbroke carry this show for its entire 3+ hour span.

I thought Mr. McCerley captured the tragic aspects of King Richard's dilemma, as well as his strength as a leader. Here was a man born to be king, and relishing that role. The scene where he surrenders his crown to Bolingbroke is heartbreaking, and some of the best work I've seen at the tavern. Similar, his "Let us tell sad stories of the deaths of kings" monologue perfectly captures the king's growing fear and loss, without sacrificing that undercurrent of strength so necessary to raise Richard's story to tragic dimensions.

Mr. Ralston, as usual, was able to find moments of humor in Henry's journey to the throne. More significantly, he was able to convey the basic differences between himself and Henry without resorting to the conceptual costuming clues evident in recent productions at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival and Canada's Stratford Festival (not that there's anything wrong with that ...).

As usual with dramas at the tavern, much of the blocking was extremely static -- large groups of people finding their marks and letting the principles speak. In this case, however, I think it was the correct choice. I assume the intention of this approach is to focus audience attention to the language; Since "Richard II" contains some of Shakespeare most beautiful poetry, this was entirely appropriate.

If I have one quibble, it is that some of the supporting performances tended to be flat and bland (although I very much liked Jackie Prucha's two Duchesses -- I was surprised to see afterwards that it was the same actress -- and the three smarmy Lords played by Tony Brown, Joey Cleary, and Jeffrey Zwartjes were fun.). This is a serious issue, since so much of our understanding depends on knowing who these characters are and how they move the history forward. Because there is so much doubling of roles, something is needed more than competent line readings. It's not that there were any bad performances on display; it's just that they were not very memorable.

Also, I did see a preview performances which a had few "going up on lines" moments. I wouldn't mention this, but, because there are so few performances, I trust this will be fixed by tonight. On the other hand, Doug Kaye as the Duke of York recovered from an early fumble to give another of the better supporting performances of the evening.

In any case, I strongly recommend you try to see this series, and I look forward to the other plays in the weeks to come.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

(BTW, it should be noted here that the background handouts quoted a little too often historian Alison Weir, whose work I've found to be peculiarly error-prone, due to her reliance on the Tudor historians such as Holinshed. These chronicles had a very Tudor "spin" to them, and facts which made the Dynasty look bad (such as the probability that Henry VII was the real murderer of the Princes in the Tower) were ignored or even lied about. Shakespeare's histories and Holinshed's Chronicles were written to glorify the Tudors, and political spin is not peculiar to the 20th century. :-) (Okay, I had to get a pretentious pedant moment in here ...)




HENRY IV, PART 1

PAGEANTRY AND EXCELLENCE
*****

The Atlanta Shakespeare Company at the New American Shakespeare Tavern continues its excursion into 14th-Century History with HENRY IV, PART I, every bit as good as last week's RICHARD II.

I have to confess to feeling a little trepidation going into this one. I have never seen it performed (other than the execrable BBC production from a couple decades ago), and my exposure to it has been limited to dry classroom discussions and research for other Shakespeare productions. I always found the plot line (and history) vague, the Falstaff sub-plot distracting, and the Hotspur digressions less-than-compelling.

Like RICHARD II last week, a group of strong performances made my initial fears groundless.

Ironically enough, Maurice Ralston's King Henry is relegated to the background here as Shakespeare focuses our attention on two Henry's -- Prince Hal, the heir apparent (Brik Berkes) and Henry "Hotspur" Percy (Charles Nelson), the hotheaded son of Northumberland, who, last week, was instrumental in bringing the King to power. Since the Prince spends his time hanging out in taverns with reprobates like Falstaff, King Henry wishes Hotspur were his son, as this other Henry is valorous and brave and everything an heir should be.

But, these characterizations prove superficial, as the Prince is soon fighting at his father's side, and the Percy's begin to foment rebellion with the Welsh Glendower clan.

Make no mistake, this is a long play (3 1/2 hours by my count). But it is filled with such a variety of incident and character and style, it never becomes dull or dry or a thinly-veiled classroom exercise. Strong supporting performances make the characters and issues clear, static "court" scenes soon give way to slapstick tavern escapades and all lead to a climax of well-choreographed warfare that I began to sense what these historical pageants meant to an Elizabethan audience. The final duel between the young Henry's is gripping and satisfying and exhausting.

Unlike last week's opener, this was more of an ensemble piece. None of the four leads (Henry, Henry, Henry, and Falstaff) overshadowed the others, and few of the smaller roles showed the blandness that slightly lessened RICHARD II's effect. Sure, there were a few line fumbles (it was, after all, a preview), but this cast (for the most part) made skillful and interesting recoveries, and was always a joy to watch.

I anticipate with pleasure next week's chapter -- Falstaff does some really despicable things in Part II, and I can't wait to see how Tony Brown will make us still like him (which, I'm sure he will). And what higher praise is that?

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

Note -- Tonight marks Mr. Brown's 1000th performance at the tavern. After all this time, he still makes it look fresh. Congratulations are definitely in order.



HENDRY IV, PART 2

LOSING STEAM? A STUDY IN CONTRASTS
***

After seeing last night's preview performance of HENRY IV, PART 2, I couldn't help wonder, is this historical pageant beginning to lose a little steam?

First, as expected with any preview performance, there were a lot of line fumbles, many more so than in previous "chapters" of this saga.

On the other hand, the cast showed themselves very adept at recovery and "turning a problem into an opportunity" moments.

The first scene was an expositional nightmare, with a Lord Morton barely able to get his speeches out, let alone being comfortable with them.

On the other hand, the actor redeemed himself quite nicely as Lord Warwick in later scenes.

The Falstaff scenes were long and not very relevant and filled with mugging, slapstick, and bawdiness.

On the other hand, I don't see anything wrong with that.

Joey Cleary was far too old to play Falstaff's page -- it's hard to think of a boy when the actor is more bearded than Prince Hal.

On the other hand, he was a hoot. When an actor is able to upstage Tony Brown's Falstaff just by standing still, you know you're dealing with a crowd-pleasing talent.

This long night in the theatre was lacking the martial kick that so enlivened Part 1 last week.

On the other hand, there were no slow moments, and the comic/dramatic scene juxtaposition held my interest for the entire 3 1/2 hours.

The scene with the officers trying to arrest Falstaff fell completely flat by relying on outmoded (and somewhat offensive) effeminate stereotypes.

On the other hand, the actors playing Falstaff's "recruits" were similarly one-dimensional, but still interesting and funny (that is, not cliched).

Pick ... Nitpick ... Pick ... Nitpick ...

On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see Laura Cole let her hair down (well, stuff it up under an appropriately cheap red wig) and have fun with Doll Tearsheet.

On the other hand, the reconciliation scene between King and Prince was extraordinarily moving.

On the other hand, the new King's final rejection of Falstaff also worked very well.

On the other hand ...

On the other hand ...

So, the answer to my initial question is maybe this play made the project lose a little bit of steam, but not enough to derail the progress. (Much may be due to the play itself -- there's a reason it's not produced very often). In spite of the quibbles I've cited above, this is still one of the best and more exciting projects the Atlanta Theatre has seen.


-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)



HENRY V

WEAK FINISH
**

In an interview a few years ago, Geoffrey Rush was asked about bizarre interpretations of Shakespeare. His response was (and I paraphrase here) that it didn't matter if you set "Hamlet" in 10th century Denmark or in 30th Century Venus, "if you don't end with a great swordfight, you’re f$&*ed!"

This thought was very much on my mind as I left last Wednesday's Preview performance of "Henry V," the final chapter in the Atlanta Shakespeare Company's ambitious historical saga, and the least satisfying.

Before I launch into all my negative comments, let me make a few caveats. This was a preview performance, so I assume things such as pace and lines and energy will improve with time. For that reason, I'll limit my comments to interpretations and directorial choices. Also, the audience received this very well, so my opinion may be a minority one.

That being said, I have to say that this production disappointed me greatly. It started off on the right note. The scheming of the clerics in the first scene was very evident and clarified the fragile basis for the conflict with France. The long history lesson was actually amusing. But it was marred by an unrealistic "bit" on the part of Brik Berkes' Henry -- a failed attempt to draw more laughs which undercut the very real basis of the play: Henry must accept this rationale and believe it. Acting bored throughout the scene makes his subsequent actions (and the whole play) seem ludicrous and petty.

Then we get to the first tavern scene, supposedly a funny and slapstick moment where Pistol and Nym almost come to blows over Mistress Quickly. But it was played with such "angst" and anger that any humor was lost and any slapstick was avoided. Poor Bardolph was left standing there just obviously waiting for his cue. There was absolutely no mood contrast between this scene and the subsequent tavern scene during which we learn of the death of Falstaff.

For the first time in this series, the doubling of actors in many roles was a distraction. Perhaps if more effort had been put into characterizations rather than just new costumes and new lines, it would have helped. On this note, congratulations must go to Maurice Ralston, Jeff McKerley, Tony Brown and Jackie Prucha for making each of their roles distinct individuals. For the rest, the language sounded good and was understandable, but I saw nothing going on beyond that. It made their roles blur into each other. This was particularly noticeable in the French court scenes – we had to wait until Act II to discover these French nobles were distinct individuals.

Throughout the series, I have been very impressed with Mr. Berkes’ performance as Prince Hal / King Henry – he hit the absolute right notes and made his growth into a king believable and moving. In “Henry V,” however, he misses in three critical moments: during the exposure of the traitors Scroop, Gray and Cambridge, he suffered a minor line fumble, but rattled off the rest of the scene at top speed, making him unintelligible and avoiding any emotion – where was the anger, the outrage? Was this an interpretation choice, or was it a factor of not enough preparation time? Also, his two “rallying the troops” speeches (“Once more until the breach” at Harfleur and the St. Crispian’s Day speech at Agincourt) both fell completely flat. There was nothing inspiring in either of these moments.

That being said, he did hit good notes in his “night-before-the-battle” scene with the soldiers (the “Every soldier’s duty is his king’s, but every soldiers soul is his own” – and I paraphrase here – was especially good), and the final scene with the French Princess (Melanie Walker, also very good) was a saving final grace note.

Most disappointing was the climactic scene, the battle of Agincourt. All the battle scenes occurred off stage, and where the tension and excitement should have been building, we were instead given a comic scene with the Welsh Captain Fluellan. Yes, traditional tragedy has violence occurring off stage, and (I’d have to check my text on this), keeping the fighting off stage may be true to the text. But the wonderful battle scenes in “Henry IV Part I” showed that extra-textural pageantry works. And after following this story for almost twelve hours, I frankly expected a bigger finish than a laugh with Fluellan and a kiss with the Princess.

So, why do I feel so guilty making these observations? Because this was a brave and ambitious undertaking -- Three of the shows were as good as anything I’ve seen this year. I do not want to belittle the achievement of Mr. Watkins and his troupe because the final show did not meet my expectations (which, admittedly, may have been misplaced). But, I believe it was the first three shows that set those expectations, and, sadly, some responsibility must be shared for them.

In any case, if such a project is planned in the future, may I humbly recommend a longer rehearsal period and a greater emphasis on characterizations on double roles? It couldn’t hurt …

--- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)


Note – Olivier’s 1944 film of “Henry V” was a patriotic spectacle devised to rouse the wartime spirit of Battle-Weary England. Did anyone ever notice that England’s action against France in this play were strikingly similar to Germany’s against France in WWII? Just an ironic thought ….

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