Review: Henri IV Part I at Brave Spirits Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Brave Spirits Theatre are brave spirits indeed. Henri IV is a vast, sprawling, powerful epic of a play. It ranges from intimate love scenes to political intrigue, battles of swords to battles of wits, comedy and tragedy and honor and cowardice. It takes an ambitious theater troupe to portray 67 characters with a dozen actors, and set a variety of different acting challenges. Brave Spirits has both ambition and the skill to achieve it.

Brave Spirits reconsiders Shakespeare’s Henry IV from a woman’s point of view. That’s how Henry becomes Henri, played with power and gravitas by Annette Mooney Wasno. Wasno’s Henri is not just a woman in a man’s role. She rebuilds the role from the ground up: not a female Henry, but Henriette, Queen of England. Her dialogue is Shakespeare’s text (with a few pronouns and other gendered terms swapped out), but Brave Spirits asks what these lines and these scenarios mean in a woman’s voice. The result is a fresh look at every line of the play.

Henri is beset by rebellion. To the west are the Welsh, led by Olwen Glendower (Amy Davis) and Esme Mortimer (Jill Tighe). From Scotland comes Nicola Collett’s potent Douglas. The Percys of Northumberland, led by Claire Schoonover’s elegant, fierce Henri Percy. Percy’s daughter, Hallie “Hotspur” Percy, is the chief warrior of this battle. Played by Briana Manente, she is a barely-contained bundle of fury clad in a black leather jacket. Her rage is potent: her monologues are clear and crisp and when she speaks, the whole world falls silent.

This woman is every bit the warrior as when played by a man. Indeed, Queen Henri admires her more than her own daughter, the dissolute Hallie. Hallie is destined to succeed her as queen, but today she is slumming it in a tavern in Eastcheap with her drunken friends. Where other Shakespearean histories have comic breaks, Henri IV has a whole comic sub-plot, and one more hilarious than found in many of The Bard’s comedies.

Leading the comedy is Jill Falstaff (Karen Lange). Falstaff is Henri’s dual: fat, earthy, and self-centered, but also grounded and real. Dressed in earth-tones, in a skirt and cape, she could easily be a mother-earth figure, albeit a mother who gets drunk and robs people. Lange brilliantly builds the role of Falstaff, morally ambiguous but deeply charismatic and compelling. 

She and Hallie are surrounded by a corps of gifted comic actors: Davis, Tighe, and Schoonover, this time as Bardolph, Peto, and Gadshill. All three are utterly hilarious physical comedy actors, portraying roles wildly distinct from their more fearsome dramatic rebel characters. Davis and Tighe are brilliant in a silent comic scene together, feeling like something straight out of Vaudeville. Nicola Collett is Poins, a fast friend that Hallie desperately needs; the two actors cement connection. 

Despite the title, young Hallie is the real star of the show, weaving through both the comic and dramatic plots. Sarah Anne Sillers skillfully brings life to the character through all of these interactions, one of the most multi-faceted in Shakespeare’s canon. She is both funny and fearsome, finding Hallie as she grows up from a trackless young woman towards the duties and honors of a queen.

This regendered play also features two male actors, playing roles originally destined for women. One of the most affecting scenes features Carl Brandt Long as Welsh husband to Tighe’s Mortimer. The Mortimers do not share any common language; the Welshman speaks, and sings, only in Welsh. They do, however, share a song, “Hallelujah”, sung by Long in Welsh. The chorus, the word “hallelujah”, is the same in both languages, and the two at last sing together. The other man in the cast is James T. Majewski, as Host Quickly, whose lean frame makes a hilarious contrast as he bickers with the famously rotund Falstaff. Director Kevin Finkelstein has cleverly set that song against another married pair, Hotspur and her wife, played by Hannah Sweet. The regendering allows a more equitable footing between the two characters, a novel and insightful way to look at their relationship. Sweet is strong but sensitive, and the two women share a powerful bond.

Henri IV is also a vast political epic, with a sweeping array of characters. Many of them are played by the extraordinarily talented Lisa Hill-Corley. She wears many hats (and many costumes) as Clarence, the Sheriff, and Tammy Percy, among others. These roles are easy to miss, but Hill-Corley gives each a life of their own, a distinct face and a distinct voice. Finkelstein’s versatile cast appears in an equally versatile space. A few stage cubes quickly transform into benches and beds, thrones and towers, with the aid of Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s lighting. Sound Designer Sarah O’Halloran aims to add depth and realism to these scenes, with varying degrees of success; in some scenes it blends in well, adding character and realism, but distracts in others. Costume Designer Kat Fleshman has created a distinctive world in that space, modern but timeless, helping to keep the army of characters straight, as well as their sides (Henri’s forces with hints of red, the rebels in blues.) Megan Behm stages a hilarious slow-motion comic fight scene for the villainous Falstaff and his ilk. As if acting and fighting weren’t enough, Finkelstein has also fleshed out the show with modern songs. Most affecting was Tighe’s heartbreaking “One Tin Soldier”. 

Finkelstein’s ambition goes even past the three hours of this play. The same troupe of a dozen open next week in Henri IV part 2, which continues Hallie’s maturity, between the two poles of her mother Henri and mother-figure Falstaff. This stunning accomplishment testifies to the devotion to the text of artistic director (and text coach) Charlene Smith. Finkelstein keeps the pace and the energy up throughout, though the nearly-uncut text may run a bit long for modern audiences. On November 14 you can even see both plays together, at matinee and evening show. That’s “all the duties of a woman”, as Vernon says of Hallie’s climactic challenge to Hotspur, and the show is an extraordinary accomplishment.

Running Time: 3 hours with one intermission

Henri IV Part I plays through November 22, 2015 at Brave Spirits Theatre at The Lab at Convergence— 1819 N. Quaker Lane in Alexandria, VA. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.

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