Tuesday, August 23, 2011


You say there's an unseasonable chill in the air? My suggestion is to grab a loved one and a bottle of something fortifying and hie thee off to Shakespeare Santa Cruz for a bracing late-summer evening (or matinee) of live theater. SSC's 30th Anniversary season continues for one more week, with all three of its excellent productions playing in repertory from tonight through this Sunday (August 28).

I highly recommend Danny Scheie's hilarious reboot of The Comedy of Errors for the indoor Mainstage—8 intrepid performers, 20 speaking parts, and a gazillion laughs. I also had a blast at Art Manke's dynamic production of The Three Musketeers outside in the Festival Glen, impressive in its fidelity to the breadth of the original Dumas novel, and rousing good fun.

Meanwhile, I finally caught up with the third SSC production, Henry IV: Part 1. Like all Shakespeare's history plays, this one is a bit troublesome to modern audiences who may not be well-versed in the arcanae of 15th Century English politics. But Scott Wentworth's smart and often innovative production keeps viewers informed and entertained.

Wentworth has the bright idea to start with a little backstory in a montage of key scenes from Richard II (the previous play in Shakespeare's history cycle, about the previous monarch), which is slyly introduced, TV series-style, as "Previously, in Richard II..." It doesn't really sort out the plot all that effectively, but at least we get a visual program to help identify the players in the drama to come.

And the players are the thing in this drama. While the usual suspects (here, principally the rebellious Welsh) jockey for power around old King Henry IV, the king's wastrel son, Prince Hal (Erik Heger) is haunting the brothels and taverns of Cheapside with the rascally old reprobate, Sir John Falstaff (Richard Ziman), his mentor in sin. This is the first appearance of Falstaff in Shakespeare's ouvre, and Ziman (above) plays him with plenty of swaggering bonhomie, crisp diction, and an acute sense of how to make every laugh count. And while unafraid to show "Plump Jack" in all his cowardice and greed, Ziman's delivery of the speech on "honor" is as persuasive as it is drily comic.

Heger plays Prince Hal like a charismatic rock star on holiday. He's wise to the way Falstaff is playing him (in hopes of currying favors from the future king), and lets us know right up front it's all part of his plan to spring back into his father's good graces when the old king, and their enemies, least expect it. But in the meantime, he's enjoying himself hugely, among the fawning tarts and whoremongers of Cheapside, particularly in a very funny scene when Hal and Falstaff take turns enacting the part of Hal's disapproving father. (In his spare time, Heger even plays the harp in one of the lovely musical interludes Wentworth weaves into the drama.)

But best of all is J. Todd Adams as Hal's cousin, Harry Percy, or "Hotspur," who gets so ticked off at the old king's abuses that he joins the Welsh rebels. Adams is such a one-man dynamo, he commands attention every time he's onstage —even if he's only lurking in the shadows, looking on (although this live wire is not content to be an observer for long). Not only does Adams manage a lubricious North Country accent throughout, his aggressive, and yet wryly witty Hotspur is the spark that make the whole production go. He's a warrior on a mission; even his relationship with his wife (a feisty Katie MacNichol) is a lusty battlefield campaign between evenly-matched competitors.

Adams has been a Festival favorite since 2009, when he played a splendidly acrobatic Puck in Richard E. T. White's vivacious production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. (He had me at Puck's first careless backflip off the stage.) This season, he's also playing the romantic Aramis in Three Musketeers (which shares the same cast and the same outdoor set in the Glen with Henry IV), and it's enormous fun to see him playing two such opposite roles.

In fact, that's always been one of the great treats of SSC; watching company members double up to play diverse parts in two productions each season. Ziman juggles both Falstaff and the scheming, formidable Cardinal Richelieu in Musketeers. Allen Gilmore, Musketeers' noble Athos, rocks out as a pimp-like cutpurse, Poins, and the raging rebel Scot, Douglas, in Henry IV; MacNichol also plays the crafty villainess, Milady de Winter, in Musketeers. As the titular king Henry IV, V Craig Heidenreich is a bit more dyspeptic than kingly, but he plays villain Rochefort with silky, purring menace in Musketeers.

(And once again, B. Modern's costumes are a delight, from the faux-medieval black leather tunics and discreet chain mail accessories of the warrior men, to the tavern tarts' time-traveling dishabille. (Modern says she conjured "five centuries' worth of underwear" for her tarts.) To go backstage with Modern and Comedy designer Brandin Barón for a behind-the-scenes look at this year's SSC costume challenges, click here.)

Wentworth himself is best known to SSC audiences as an actor; he played Bottom in Dream and Brutus in Julius Caesar in the 2009 season. A s a director, he makes some intriguing choices in Henry IV: Part 1. Music is paramount, particularly some gorgeous vocal solos by Sepideh Moafi as both the wife of a Welsh rebel, and leader of a chorus of robed women whose rich, soulful chanting is offered up in counterpoint to the martial male action of the play. Owen Glendower, leader of the Welsh rebels, is played by Phil Hubbard as a robed mage and mystic, his court a half-fey, otherworldly stronghold full of eerie music and lilting Welsh dialogue. And when the climactic battle comes, Wentworth borrows a trick from the movies and stages it in slo-mo; it pays off—the effect is far more elegiac than the expected sword-clanking melee.

So forget about the confusing politics and soak up Henry IV: Part 1 for its entertaining performances and vivid stagecraft. (Tickets available here.) Remember, this is the last week!

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