Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 2" at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a quirky production that juxtaposes the high drama of civil war and the near simultaneous death of the King, to the almost slapstick comedy of Falstaff and The Eastcheap Tavern.
Cannons fire on each end of the stage and Henry's troops enter from the audience and stage to martial music. Rumors are rampant as to the state of the rebel army. The one thing that is known is that Hotspur is dead. Beyond that troop numbers range from 10,000 to 50,000. It soon becomes apparent that the rebels are, indeed, in bad shape. We move to Prince Hal and Poins, who decide to disguise themselves to spy on Falstaff at the Eastcheap. This turns into almost a Marx Brothers type comedy. Pistol swaggers with his cod piece and assails and regales Doll Tearsheet. This crowd makes a mockery of Shakespeare. Bardolph has a big false nose and it's tweaked frequently. There are no women in this production. Only four are called for in the entire play, but it has never been more apparent how necessary those four are.
At The Eastcheap, Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet are Drag Queens. It's very funny because they overact the parts to such extremes; but it's a very hard cut from and to the Civil War in the England of Henry IV. Part One was updated to a 42nd Street like setting with modern armies, motor scooters, and Union Jacks, but, with minor exceptions, this one is set squarely in 14th century England. The Drag Queens are the ones that work, at least somewhat. The other two women are Northumberland's wife and daughter-in-law. These two are bigger and more masculine than he is. He better listen to their council of they'll beat him to a pulp! I rarely like cross-gender parts and this is the worst of it.
Prince Hal finally grows out of his youthful folly here. He revels at The Eastcheap for a while with Poins . It's pretty half hearted, though, and he reproaches himself for wasting time here while others are fighting for the kingdom that will become his. He's growing out of his wild youth, and as we see the ill King Henry, we realize that Prince Hal is growing into the crown.
After the intermission this production settles down into some serious theater. Falstaff recruits his ragtag bunch. He picks the worst of the litter to Shallow's dismay. The rebels are finally tricked into laying down their arms and are promptly arrested for capital treason. As Henry retires to his deathbed Westmoreland tells him that Hal will be a good successor. Henry's skeptical. The best scene of this play is when Hal enters his father's chamber. Thinking Henry is dead, he picks up the crown and resolves to keep it. Here is where he finds the strength to reject his former life and become King. Henry is lived upon awakening. He thinks Hal can't wait to give his kingdom to Falstaff and his low-lifes. The play between father and son is stupendous, as Hal finally convinces Henry that he will be a good King. Henry recounts all the troubles since he took Richard's crown ten years before, and gives Hal his final counsel to put his deeds as far away as possible and to unite England against a common foe, France. The only time the second story stage is used, except for the musicians, is when King Henry V appears in all his majesty in a flash of light.
This production of "Henry IV, Part Two" certainly has it's moments. It also has it's problems. Aside from the disjointedness of the first part in general, it has too few actors. There are only fifteen male actors for over fifty characters. Even for someone who is familiar with the multitude of Shakespearean entrances and exits, and someone whose favorite Shakespeare is the histories, it's confusing. The same actors, voices, and mannerisms represent several different characters. This worked for "Measure for Measure" last year, but it was a stripped down production of a much simpler play.
As to this particular performance, Falstaff was played by an understudy. For much of the play he read his script. He had the acting down very well, and even included an audience member, but for such a major part it was very distracting. Perhaps the line that got the biggest laugh of the evening was when Hal, entering Henry's death chamber exclaimed "...why rain within and none abroad." I have seen all but two of Shakespeare plays, but the performance of August 6, was the night I became a hardcore Shakespearean theater goer. It's the first time I sat through an entire performance in the rain. Kudos to The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland for "The show must go on." "Henry IV, Part 2" continues outdoors on a dryer Elizabethan stage through Oct. 8.