Review: ‘Henry IV Parts I & II’ at The Rude Mechanicals

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Over 17 years, The Rude Mechanicals, a local theater company specializing in classic works, has made its way through nearly all of Shakespeare’s enduring canon. After the current production of Henry IV, Parts I & II, they will have only four left to conquer, including, just by chance, both Henry V and Richard II.

At the combined Henry IV production, which takes place at the tiny, inventive Highwood Theatre in Silver Spring, MD, we are not so much an audience as we are guests at a banquet – seated on opposite sides of long, narrow risers that remind us of a stately table – with the austere English throne at one end and a sloppy assemblage of tables, chairs and props symbolizing the Boar’s Head Tavern at the other. Prince Hal’s choices are thus clear from the very start.

Love, loyalty, despair, and death play out along the ‘banquet’ risers over the action of Shakespeare’s twin tales, condensed in this instance into a single performance in two acts.

As Hal, the impressionable young prince, Evan Ockershausen moves convincingly between the orbits of the dissolute Falstaff and his father, King Henry IV. What parent hasn’t bemoaned bad influences on his children? And what emerging adult has not sought to rebel against the sober expectations of a parent. Ockershausen embodies the conflict in his posture and gait, which ranges from debonair cockiness to humble repentance and finally, pride.

The production’s gender-neutral casting was particularly effective in the case of Henry IV, played by the diminutive Sam David, whose astute body language and vocal gravitas allow us to fully imagine a strong and determined monarch who both loves and deplores his son, and is gradually felled by the ravages of illness.

Wayne De Cesar plays the infamous Falstaff as an aging rogue with more than a glimmer in his eye. One might have wished for a portrayal that more fully embraced Shakespeare’s famously fat and funny character, but his nostalgic scene with Mistress Quickly, played with gusto and confidence by Jaki Demarest, was among the most affecting in this production.

Director Josh Engel envisions the combined show with an emphasis on father-son relationships, emphasizing the push and pull of Hal’s two “fathers” but also reflected in the loyalty between Hotspur (Erin MacDonald) and Northumberland (Carol Calhoun) and the latter’s profound grief when his son is killed by Hal.

Lead costumer Trevor Jones gives visual credence to Engel’s jazz-age setting, clothing Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet in flapper glitter and glam, and Falstaff in an appropriately tired, tailed, tux. Military uniforms for the opposing camps reflect the restive, post-World War I period.

Lighting by Jeff Poretsky moved the audience convincingly from royal to ribald settings, echoing again the contrasting worlds inhabited by Hal. The Highwood Theatre may pose challenges to actors trained to project their lines forcefully – one could almost see their words shatter and break against the low ceiling in the first act. By the second act, however, both Eric Honour’s sound and the actors themselves had moderated their volume, making each character far easier to comprehend.

The Rude Mechanicals deserve our respect for their tireless efforts to interpret and reinterpret the classics ranging from ancient Greek dramas to those of The Bard. Their production of Henry IV Parts I & II reminds us yet again that Shakespeare’s themes are virtually timeless, giving inventive players across the generations endless opportunities to breathe new life into familiar and well-loved characters.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

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Henry IV Parts I & II plays through June 18, 2016 at The Rude Mechanicals performing at the Highwood Theatre – 914 Silver Spring Avenue, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.

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