There’s a question plaguing Hollywood today when it comes to wildly successful and praised new works: should we make a sequel and can it possibly be as good as the original? And while many blame film studios’ lame superhero franchise cash grabs as a recent phenomenon, the sequel is at least as old as Shakespeare.
Budding DC-area theater company Brave Spirits Theatre is staging an oft-ignored sequel, Henry IV Part 2, in repertory with it’s vastly more popular sibling Henry IV Part 1, both retitled as Henri IV Part 1, which I reviewed for DC Theatre Scene last week and Henri IV Part 2. While their attempt (much like their name) is Brave, a combination of scraping the bottom barrel of Shakespearean oeuvre and a Falstaffian mistake of biting off more than they could chew shows that Henri IV Part 2 might best be consigned to the chop shop of adaptation (à la Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight or Stratford’s upcoming Breath of Kings) rather than letting the play stand on its own, even in repertory with the original.
Part of the issue is the bane of every sequel: the second part is more of the same, but just not as good. Director Kevin Finkelstein continues the double production concept of regendering the play (only the villainous Archbishop, one of his lackeys, a messenger and a few of the tavern crawlers are played by men, the rest are played by women) and cabaret, where characters sing pop songs during transitions to express their feelings from the previous scene or set the mood for the next scene. This continuation is understandable: keeping the same concept means that Part 2 feels like an extension of Part 1, it is much easier on the budget, and the concept choices worked so smoothly in Part 1. In Part 1, the regendering did not distract from the action and the cabaret felt poignant and occasionally chill-inducing.
But Part 2 is a very different play. While Part 1 is all about the mixing of high drama and low humor, Shakespeare fills Part 2 with bawdy tavern scenes alongside overwrought court scenes that rarely, if ever meet, and neither of the production concepts helped in either high or low channels. The regendering made many of the tavern scenes simply unravel in dysfunction since so many of the jokes and developments are based on Early Modern stereotypes of exchanges between whorish tavern wenches and layabout bawds.
The regendering hurt the court scenes, too. The deterioration and death of the titular Henrietta and the downfall of her enemies teeters over the precipice of the melodramatic and falls sobbing into the chasm of the hysterical. I use that last word conscious of its sexist origins, because that is exactly why the regendering hurt, rather than helped Brave Spirits’ Henri IV Part 2.
Henri IV, Part 1
Henry IV, Part 2
October 29 – November 22, 2015
Brave Spirits Theatre
at Lab at Convergence
1819 N. Quaker Lane
Alexandria, VA 22302
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $20 – $30
Thursdays thru Sundays
Regendering a script works best when it gives women a new set of paradigms to work with as artists, roles and depths sadly lacking in present day playwriting and much less in Shakespeare’s work. But Shakespeare’s overwrought verse and hackneyed plotting give these actors little recourse but tears, and crying filled so much of every court scene that I was desensitized to it. Regender a play to give women the roles of the lionized warrior, the ruthless rogue, the passionate seducer, or the hotheaded braggart, but spare us, and these actors, the crying figure of pity; we all have already had 2500 years too much of that.
The excessive lacrimation may also be a result of lack of rehearsal, several signs of which reared their heads during the play. There is a usual flow to acting technique in rehearsal: an actor begins rehearsals with their instinct for the character, then (once the character is figured out) they tend to push the role to its emotional extreme, and, as performances finally near, that excess gets restrained to create a balanced character. But, if the the show is under-rehearsed, the company never reaches the point of restraint, and all that is left for performance is the emotional excess that we see in Henri IV Part 2.
Lack of rehearsal also shows in long transitions, line trouble, and a lack of crispness in the musical segments. Part 1 moved briskly, had few flubs, and the cabaret songs were especially sharp, so it appears as if Part 2 was given less time than Part 1. The song choices didn’t help either. The strongest singers in the cast get fewer songs in Part 2. Sarah Anne Sillers as Prince Hallie (and later as Queen Henri V) only got one showstopper, and I missed Jill Tighe’s (Joan of Lancaster) voice.
Curiously, vastly more difficult songs were chosen for this sequel, and I felt bad for Claire Schoonover singing Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” which even original singer Steven Tyler cannot do anymore due to its odd rhythms and vocal acrobatics.
There were some bright spots in the acting and design. James T. Majewski as Master Quickly and Karen Lange fenced well with their tavern repartee, bringing some humorous light to the tavern scenes. They even managed to find some extra layers of humor that took advantage of the regendering when Quickly is made fun of for “cleaning Falstaff’s wound.”
Yet again, Jill Tighe brought the whole package: bloody grins as Joan of Lancaster and charming comic choices as Shadow. Sound and lights felt more subtle in the sequel than in the original, though the set of wood blocks painted as stone did as much blocking and time wasting in their movement as they helped set the scene. Costumes got a boost as well, and there were some nice threads of color-matching that eased Shakespeare’s confusing royal plots as well as some new fancy pants for some of the actors.
I applaud the soaring ambition of Brave Spirits Theatre in attempting two plays, one very difficult and practically unseen on present day stages. I admire the attempt at consistency in the design and execution of both plays. With Henri IV Part 2, they have given female voice to roles that may never have had that unique perspective before now. But Part 2 is lost in the shadow of Henri IV Part 1; it is an unfortunate extension of a great play, and I’m unsure that there is anything that Brave Spirits could have done that would save Henry IV Part 2 from being that. So here is my recommendation concerning Henri IV Part 2: Go see Henri IV Part 1.
Henri IV, Part 2 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.