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Theater Review: “The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V” at Artisphere

Four of Shakespeare’s history plays are cobbled together in this interesting but ultimately patchy production.

Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Melissa B. Robison, Kari Ginsburg, Ashley DeMain, and Cam Magee (left to right) in The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V at Artisphere. Photograph by C. Stanley Photography

☆☆ 1/2 out of four

There’s a truly arresting idea behind WSC Avant Bard’s fall show, The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V. That the production loses its fizz about midway through its two-and-a-half-hour length is, in some ways, beside the point. The concept deserves to live on—with revisions and cuts, perhaps—to be done another day. It’s that intriguing.

Director/adapter/scholar Tom Mallan has scrambled together four of Shakespeare’s interrelated history plays— Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V—into a kind of music-hall rendering of the story. There’s not a line in the show, Mallan says, that isn’t from one of those plays, but he’s taken the texts and applied a cut-and-paste approach. Certain speeches assigned to one character by Shakespeare are given to another by Mallan. And the pastiche is intended to follow the entire story arc of the plays, from Henry IV’s rise to power through his son Prince Hal’s ascension to the throne as Henry V. If you come to the show with little or no knowledge of the four plays Mallan has mined, you might be lost, with only the cast’s general exuberance and the show’s fin-de-siècle atmosphere to carry you. But if you know Shakespeare’s histories a little, you’ll be better off.

Mallan has set the entire proceedings in the Boar’s Head Tavern (and brothel) in London’s Eastcheap district. It’s there that young Prince Hal (Jay Hardee) has led a life of dissipation and irresponsibility in the company of Sir John Falstaff (Christopher Henley) and his bibulous crew of thieves and ladies of horizontal refreshment. Denizens of the tavern, performing on a makeshift stage at the back of the pub, act out and satirize battles and palace intrigues from the four plays. They belt a few original tunes (composed by Raymond Bokhour, with lyrics all taken from Shakespeare), accompanied by piano, flute, guitar, and mandolin—catchy at first, but too oft repeated. Thus, in Mallan’s conceit, Prince Hal can sit down with a pint and see himself , his dad, and his dad’s enemies spoofed by his own lowlife pals.

In Shakespeare’s day, female roles were played by men and boys; the show at this tavern, however, features the prostitute Doll Tearsheet (Kerri Ginsburg) taking the role of Henry IV at times, as does Falstaff. Mistress Quickly (Cam Magee) assays Richard II and Northumberland. Mistress Silence (Sara Barker) plays the rebel Henry “Hotspur” Percy. On top of all this—literally—are silent newsreels, deliberately formal and stiff, projecting images of “actual” events onto a piece of cloth hung above the tavern’s stage. Again, Prince Hal can see himself taking part in history—shaking hands with his father, the king.

In front of the tavern’s little stage is the large three-sided playing area that represents the main room of the public house. At the center is a long, rough-hewn table onto which performers often climb to sing, dance, or tussle. In keeping with the early-20th-century look of the film projections, the set by Tobias Harding and the eclectic costumes by Rhonda Key hark back not to 14th- or 15th-century England, but to Oscar Wilde’s London, complete with gaslit brass chandeliers and actresses (plus at least one guy) in bustles, bustiers, and high button shoes. (The evocative lighting, by the way, is by Alex F. Keen.)

In perhaps the show’s riskiest move, Prince Hal is portrayed as gay and in love with one of Falstaff’s gang, Ned Poins (James Finley). A director could easily make a case, one supposes, for Hal being gay. But Hardee’s Hal, whatever his character’s sexual orientation, needs more of a hint of steel and status, even in his days of debauchery. Only at the end, when Mallan has Hal take the throne in the style of a fascist dictator, does Hardee’s portrayal gain that edge. The large cast, though uneven in their renderings of Shakespeare’s lines and in their singing, never lose energy. And Christopher Henley as Falstaff is a triumph.

Henley, WSC Avant Bard’s longtime artistic director, is a tall, slender man, and hardly a likely Falstaff. This isn’t a typical Shakespeare production, however, and Mallan’s decision to cast him was inspired. Henley as Falstaff has a little stomach padding for the sake of tradition, plus long, stringy black hair, a red velvet cutaway coat, and a gold-tipped walking stick. An affable, pompous gasbag, he’s on the road to seedy ruin and enjoying every mile. Even as the others are busy enacting English history on their little tavern stage, one’s eyes drift to Henley, slouching in a chair just to the side, his eyes half-closed in contentment, watching his friends perform. Henley gets you through the evening, long after the overall concept has overstayed its welcome.

The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V by WSC Avant Bard runs at Artisphere in Rosslyn through December 4. Tickets ($25 to $35, with pay-what-you-can Saturday matinees) are available through WSC Bard’s Web site.