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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

OSF 2011: The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth, or, Rumors of War

http://www.osfashland.org/index.aspx

Henry IV, Part Two (Theatre Review Weather Report)
Michael Winters as Falstaff


[Note: I saw this a second time during summer, in better weather; see that later post here.]

A disclaimer: I'm not a critic; this is a journal-blog. And this isn't really the review I'd like to write; it's more of a weather report. The OSF's summer season may have begun, but as the gods would have it, it was cold and raining steadily throughout the first performance of the season in the outdoor Elizabethan Stage.* But wait - I'm not complaining!

On schedule a fanfare sounded, the flag went up above the theatre, an actor waved to the audience from an upper window, and the audience responded with the customary hearty cheer. But we had Weather. An announcer came out and explained to us that the play would go on, but because the stage was very wet, tonight's performance would be "minus some of the action." (How would we know what action? None of us had seen it before, anyway.) He said that according to the weather service, it would continue to rain steadily for at least another two hours (in fact I think it went on all night; it was raining the same way this morning), and assured us that anyone who didn't want to stay could leave at any time until 9:30, and collect a voucher for another play of their choice. 

My seat was out of the rain (in one of the back rows, under the balcony) so I wasn't about to go anywhere, but some people in the exposed seats did leave then. Some others stayed until 9:30 and then left at the last minute, in the middle of a scene, to collect their vouchers, having seen the first half of the play. Most of those in the open seats did stay, though, stoical under their plastic ponchos and a few umbrellas. The temperature, which started in the 50's, must have gone down to the lower 40's by the time the play ended at 11:30. 

Rain slickers and blankets are always available at this theater, in case you need them. And that's how it works. 

Elizabethan stage. I was sitting about here, but to the left, in the center. If you want shelter from the rain, you have to sit this far back, in row M or farther back, so you're under the balcony (you can just see the overhang, upper left in this photo). I've heard that some of the side seats, such as Row E, are also under cover. I had a seat in Row O because it was all I could afford; I prefer the balcony or the front rows, but as it turned out, I was glad to be sitting where I was!
I was eager to see this one. The History plays are my favorites, and I was a big fan of last year's Part One. For some months I'd been enjoying the vlog by John Tufts (Prince Hal; future King Henry V) and his wife Christine, also an OSF actor, posted as they toured England and France in search of the historical sites in these three Henry plays. Also, the Previews are just a little cheaper than the regular run. So I made a beeline for the first performance and took my chances with the weather. 

Well, from what went on, on the stage, you wouldn't have known it was raining and cold. Did they have a hidden roof up there? No; the stage was wet. THEY must have been wet and cold. Some of the cast wore skimpy costumes (such as a tavern girl, and Rumor, who wore that iconic Rolling Stones t-shirt with the tongue on it). How did they keep their voices from shivering?

I'll get one thing out of the way, about this play, right now: humor. Yes, there is something wacky and strangely off-base about this play, but it's not what you'd call funny. Yes, there are chuckles over some of the wordplay that swirls around Falstaff. But last night there were also two big laughs. The first came when Falstaff is recruiting soldiers in the country; wearing full sun-gear and mopping his brow, he complains that it is hot. The other came when Hal visits his ill father in his bedchamber--a bed on the wet stage-- and exclaims "How now! rain within doors, and none abroad!" Now, THAT was an audience-pleaser. I hope the cast relished the rare opportunity to find humor in the deathbed scene.

On to the play...  First, we all know this is not Shakespeare's best, most successful, most popular play. But it's interesting to read -- Shakespeare at his worst is still never less than interesting, with terrific nuggets to be found -- and when I saw it performed once before, I liked it well enough, though I can't remember why. But certainly, after Part One's high moral conflicts and bloody civil war (and, in last year's production, very well-wrought women's scenes) this one is going to be anticlimactic and pallid, if you're expecting more of the same. 

In this Part, Shakespeare gives Falstaff a lot more lines and scenes but mostly without Hal, and Hal has very little to do except for two magnificent moments toward the end (but just for this, I recommend seeing the play: John Tufts is so very good). The war gears up but then never happens, and the "traitors" aren't particularly interesting because at this point they're just rehashing old grievances, and they're dealt with through a kind of trickery that's so summarily announced that you can miss it altogether if you doze off. 

Further, where Part One was fraught with paradox in the character of Henry IV, who doesn't really seem to have had a right to the throne, yet he won it and keeps it, in Part Two that's over; he is old, ill and on his way out, and he's gone back to fretting about Hal's fitness to take over. In fact everyone here but Hal has become very old and cynical; gone are the earnest political bull sessions of the Hotspur days. Hal doesn't get old, but he does at least give up his childish ways, which sets the stage for his emergence as a real leader in Henry V.

But to me this play is now far more than just a bridge between Part One and Henry V. I think it's precisely this difference between the two Parts that makes Part Two interesting to me now: take out the extended (and to my taste grievously overlong) sessions at the tavern with the low characters, and what you have is a surprisingly modern take on the hollowness of the life that seemed so vital in Part One. Rather than being about war, it's about rumors of war. How did Shakespeare do that, write a play about the absence of things? That's what I mean about its having a modern feel to it, to me, now. In fact, the Part Two I saw yesterday is a sort of anti-Part One play. Where the first is full of fireworks, Part Two explores the opposite quality. Its chief interest is therefore intellectual, not emotional. But there is plenty of that kind of interest, and the OSF brings it out. It was a very engaging evening and in better, less distracting weather, might be a compelling one.

Apart from some of the outstanding performances - John Tufts as Hal, of course; Michael Winters as Falstaff; Rodney Gardiner as Rumor; several others too - what I relished most in this production were the beginning and the end. They do a very amusing thing there. At the start, they unfurl a very long, thin banner saying, in charming Elizabethan style, "previously on..." and do a set piece with a group of players and freeze-frames highlighting what went on in the previous two History plays. And at the end, the speech is modified in a similar way, using the whole cast to do a teaser for the next episode play. At that, I left the theater with a big smile on my face. Very nice! Thank you, OSF.

Finally, let me just say that for this outing I was wearing several layers including a very warm Irish wool sweater, wool socks, a raincoat lined with flannel, and a wool scarf all around my head and shoulders. In this ensemble I was warm enough, except when the wind changed direction, but as the temperature went slowly downwards over the course of three hours, and in the absence of exercise, it wasn't that comfortable really.

Final score: Four stars out of five. I still don't like Falstaff and the tavern scenes (though I understand why something of the sort had to be there), and the rain and cold were distracting, but in the face of these drawbacks this production did more than just hold hold my interest. I found myself rereading the play, when I got home, and wanting to see this OSF version again. When I do, later in the season, I'll be very surprised if I don't enjoy it even more. And maybe then I'll write a review (or at least some better insights into why it worked), and not a weather report. 

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*The OSF season begins in February with plays in the two indoor theatres, but the Elizabethan stage doesn't open until "summer" (May 31 this year). In case you're wondering how it works, having outdoor performances in cold, rainy Oregon, it's not as bad as it sounds: we don't have Portland weather here. Spring is rainy, fall may have storms, but the summer is very dry. Nights are cool in summer, but not uncomfortably so. The first plays, in late spring, and the last ones, in the fall, sometimes see cold and rainy conditions, but throughout the summer it is mostly very fine weather. And when it isn't fine, performances are only very rarely cancelled on account of weather. 

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