One of the hardest things about producing a Shakespeare play is making it feel up to date. Paraphrasing Jack Crew when contemplating playing Hamlet in Slings and Arrows, “Every time the audience hears ‘To be or not to be,’ they won’t be hearing my voice; they’ll be hearing the voices of all of the famous actors who have said those words before me.”
Brave Spirits, one of the youngest theater companies in the DMV, have found a way to bring a bright and fresh look to Henry IV Part 1. They have combined two very old techniques to accomplish it: regendering and cabaret.
Henry IV Part 1 is a rough play to pick if you want to find roles for women. It’s the 1776 of Shakespearean plays: the only female characters are a tavern wench, Hotspur’s wife, and a Welsh woman who literally has no lines in English. Moreover, Henry IV, Part 1 is a play about Prince Hal, who gives up the adolescent rambunctiousness of drunken Falstaff’s company to grow into the warlike man his father wants him to be, so, in many ways, the play is a coming-of-age story about Early Modern masculinity and how a boy evolves into the ideal of that masculinity, that is, a soldier.
But what happens if you change the gender of nearly everyone in the play, as Brave Spirits has done? Besides getting a show that is suddenly full of female parts, this change moves the play away from its overt masculinity and puts the focus on Hal (now Hallie) choosing between her responsibilities to her friends and her obligations to her mother.
To be clear, Brave Spirits’ production isn’t a drag play: they have adjusted the text so that all of the male characters are now referred to as females by changing titles, pronouns, etc. Besides a little marring of the verse and softening the bravado, the biggest surprise for me was that this change didn’t do much to the play. The times where I was taken out of the action by gender flopping were few and far between. There wasn’t any more suspension of disbelief in thinking that Sarah Anne Sillars was a medieval Prince Hal than imagining her to be warrior Princess Hallie, so if you are concerned with the regendering, don’t be; the play functions just fine.
In fact, Brave Spirits’ other adaptation of Henry IV Part 1 (titled Henri IV, as in Henrietta), rendering many transitions in the play in the form of cabaret, is actually enhanced by the regendering. Here, Brave Spirits and Director Kevin Finkelstein have taken a technique from 19th century Shakespearean burlesque by sprinkling popular songs throughout the play. For example, when Hallie and Poins rob the robbers by tricking Falstaff, Hallie’s mother (Henri IV) sings “Cat’s in the Cradle,” 70’s folk hit about a father’s estrangement from his son. Not only does the song make great background music for funny slow motion fight choreography, but it also emphasizes how Hallie’s rough bullying of her friends mirrors Henri IV’s bull-headed methods of ruling the kingdom and how their similarity entrenches the gap between them. It’s a series of moments that are playful but run deep, which mirrors the highest aspirations of the play.
HENRI IV, Part 1
October 29 – November 22
Brave Spirits Theatre
at Lab at Convergence
1819 N. Quaker Ln.
Alexandria, VA 22302
Tickets: $20 – $30
Thursdays thru Sundays
Some of the best moments of this play come from these smartly inserted (and nicely played via live instrumentation) songs. As the Hallie/Falstaff’s band march off to war, Jill Tighe (who plays Joan, younger sister to Hallie) sings “One Tin Soldier.” Where a straight up production of would let the kitting and marching of the soldiers roll on into intermission, adding this anti-war protest song sharpens the ultimate scene before intermission, giving a sense of danger to the proceedings and providing an emotional shortcut that resonates deeply. It doesn’t hurt that Tighe, who made much out of a small part, blows the roof off with her performance. Though she’s fresh out of school, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her playing some of the bigger houses in DC in no time.
Tighe isn’t the only standout member of the cast. Sarah Anne Sillars rocks as Hal hiding ferocity in puckish charm, and she has a strong voice for her songs, matching her strong acting skills. Many of the other actors do well, but don’t gain the depth of character they need to take their roles to the next level. Karen Lange definitely has Falstaff’s jocularity down, but lacks the fear and desperation that makes Falstaff such a compelling character. Briana Manente nails the brashness and bravado of Hotspur, but never finds the second level of vulnerability that gives her contrast. Annette Wasno is secure in the cold cruelty of Henri IV, but the fundamental berserker rage essential to the character doesn’t make an appearance. Notice a pattern?
This kind of pattern usually indicates directorial problems with the play, usually extending from a lack of rehearsal, which is not surprising given the shoestring budget Brave Spirits must be operating on. But some of the directorial issues can’t be attributed to budget. Sightlines in this unraked ¾ thrust space are difficult enough as it is, but the blocking doesn’t make good use of the diagonals on the stage, often leaving actors with backs to the audience or getting in each other’s way. There are some excruciating sound cues that are supposed to tell the audience where we are (at court, the tavern, etc.), but that information is easily inferable because the cast does such a remarkable job of being clear with their doubling that I’d really rather see those sound cues cut than feel harassed by them through entire scenes. But Finkelstein should get a tip of the hat for making some excellent conceptual choices with the regendering and the music, but by the same token get a wag of the finger for rough treatment of the details.
Even so, Henri IV is a good effort, if not a great one. There are nice fights from Megan Behm, a strong lead, and moments (especially in the cabaret numbers) that gave me chills. All of that amounted to a fresh take on a classic play, and one worth seeing, but I would only highly recommend it if you have a particular love of the original or have a strong interest in flipping the script on gender in classic plays. That said, Brave Spirits is promising as a new company producing classics, so be on the lookout for them as a passionate and talented up-and-coming company producing interesting work.
Henri IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare . Directed by Kevin Finkelstein. Featuring Nicola Collett, Lisa Hill-Corley, Karen Lange, Carl Brandt Long, James T. Majewski, Briana Manente, Amy Davis, Claire Schoonover, Sarah Anne Sillers, Hannah Day Sweet, Jill Tighe and Annette Wasno. Scenic Charge and Properties Master: Rachael Knoblauch . Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke . Sound Design: Sarah O’Halloran . Fight Direction: Megan Behm . Dramaturg: Mara Ann Sherman . Stage Manager: Natalie Nichols . Produced by Brave Spirits . Review by Alan Katz.
2 hours and 30 minutes with 1 15 minute intermission