So, how do you come away from a lukewarm production with such positive feelings?
Henry IV by William Shakespeare. Adapted and Directed by Meg Taintor. Music Direction by Jordan Palmer. Movement Direction by Julia Sears. Scenic design by Robin Vest. Lighting design by Brian J. Lilienthal. Costume design by Chelsea Kerl. Produced by Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House, Stonington, Maine, through August 27.
By David Greenham
It might be difficult to believe, but for the past 15 years or so some of the most interesting and creative arts projects in Maine have been presented in Stonington, an idyllic island community nestled in the Penobscot Bay with a population of around 1,500. Since 2000, Opera House Arts (OHA) has operated the Stonington Opera House, a century old rustic venue that’s been rejuvenated with the OHA goal to “incite art and create community.”
Each summer, OHA mounts a staging of Shakespeare, and it’s an admirable tradition that new Executive and Artistic Director Meg Taintor has decided to continue. Some might know Taintor from her many years in Boston, where she was the Artistic Director of the innovative Whistler in the Dark Theatre as well as part of the theater arts team at Arts Emerson. Taintor’s been at the helm of OHA since the summer of 2015 and has brought together a team of experienced and accomplished theater artists for this year’s Bardic offering, Henry IV, a highly edited version of Shakespeare’s two-part epic.
Stonington’s Henry IV is a kind of greatest hits compilation from the two dramas that mostly leans toward the side of Falstaff and the “Bedlam Boys” in Eastcheap, edging away from the political conflicts and troubled relationships of King Henry IV. The cast of six, Jennifer Deal, Zillah Glory, Matt Hurley, Curt Klump, Esther Williamson, and Jordan Palmer, play nearly 30 characters between them. Be warned: if you don’t know the Bard’s storyline well, it might be difficult to keep up.
The rudiments of this sweeping narrative are pretty clear: Hal, the young and likable Prince of Wales, hangs out with the ultra-witty egotist Falstaff, who is a pathological liar and drunk. Meanwhile, King Henry IV, who stole the crown from his cousin, Richard II, is beginning to see that his friends have become rivals and that a bloody civil war might be imminent.
The Stonington production squeezes a historical tempest into a teapot. The evening’s second act begins with the battle that ends Henry IV Part One. The production then turns to the bulk of Henry IV Part Two, Hal’s redemption in the eyes of his dying father and his rejection of his earlier dissolute life. When a performer plays a different character the change is signified by an addition to his or her costume; in some cases, the actor seems to have latched onto a figure’s age or physical anomalies. Too often the result is that we know the actor has become someone different — but who?
Sometimes the uncertainty gives way to clear and crisp moments that make you (as a program note delightfully urges) “sit forward”: an opening song with the Bedlam Boys, Hal’s determined “tear the reckoning from his heart” speech, Lady Percy’s aching lament for her dead husband, and — although in this version the gathering seemed to jump in from nowhere — the famous corrupt ‘recruiting’ scene with its wonderful band of Shakespeare zanies acted to a comic T: Mouldy, Shadow, Wart, Feeble, and Bullcalf.
Still, too often the production’s characterizations are on the muddy side, to the point that the storyline becomes perplexing to the point of bewilderment. This narrative drift is surprising, given that Taintor has pulled together an accomplished team of actors. Perhaps the staging is too ambitious. At its heart, Henry IV is a war play that revolves around a timeless and universal story of the conflict between a parent and child. The Bard adjusted the facts of history in order to make the parent/child relationship prominent. In this production, Taintor chose to cram in the full scope of the martial story, at breakneck speed, with actors whipping in and out of character at the drop of a piece of fabric. Is she wrong? Not at all! She ends up overreaching. Critics gripe these days that theaters are playing it way too safe. That’s certainly not the issue here.
If I’d have tried the same thing, I’d have focused more on the relationship between Henry IV and Hal, and the elements that generate the war. You don’t need all that many opportunities to see that Falstaff is a weak, lying, blowhard. (Well, given the state of our national politics, maybe some people do need to see reality over and over and over again to be convinced.) For me, Shakespeare’s history plays are at their most effective when a director focuses on the through line of the story; the characterizations should contribute to Shakespeare’s vision of humanity under pressure. Close-ups can get in the way. Of course, some critics insist that there is a “right way” or “wrong way” to stage Shakespeare. I disagree, and turn to Hal for my response: “It would be argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest forever.” It is good that Taintor is interested in taking a risk.
As Hal, Mortimer, and Vernon (with apt turns as Mouldy and Bullcalf), Matt Hurley is generally spot on. Zillah Glory is strong in her stints as Westmorland, Poins, Lady Percy, and others. In fact, the chemistry between the two performers is consistently winning — their scenes as Hal and Poins are the best in the production.
Three key characterizations in the staging are more problematic. The bluster of Curt Klump’s Falstaff is more off-putting than charismatic, Jennifer Deal’s King Henry is dark and brooding to the point of inscrutability, and Esther Williamson’s Hotspur boils over — continually. These are actors with considerable training. Perhaps, because they have to change characters so quickly, the transformations compounded by the staging’s accelerated pacing, the performers were prevented from finding the firm footing they needed to go beyond caricature.
Jordan Palmer’s music direction is effective. On stage, he is given the least amount to do, but he provides a bright and active presence. His Master Shadow — hiding out in a wooden box — is hilarious.
Robin Vest has created a raw and compelling set design: a thrust stage juts out from a slightly askew false proscenium. Save for a partly painted map on the stage floor and a snippet of Shakespeare’s text on the upper stage floor, the effect comes off as unfinished. Upstage center there is a panel with large cutout of a (hollow) crown, a reminder of the royal stakes at hand.
Brian J. Lilienthal’s lights are mostly limited to hanging fluorescent bulbs, and these supply a couple of special moments. The stylized battle scenes take place in a powerful wash of blue work lights. There is a particularly beautiful moment when Williamson (as Lady Mortimer) sings a gorgeous Welsh lullaby; the lighting wraps around her in a warm embrace. Aside from these revelatory choices, however, the lighting is a pedestrian wash.
The costume-a-rama is a concept that never overcomes its limitations. Chelsea Kerl outfits each actor in a distinctive primary costume and then, over the course of the play, layers on additional bits and pieces to signify that the performer has become another character. Sometimes the changes in garb are too subtle — halfway through a scene I’d think “Wait, who’s this character?” And I know the texts pretty well.
So how do you come away from a lukewarm production with such positive feelings? It is not that hard. Stonington’s Henry IV pushes at boundaries. The result is predictably uneven: several highlights, a bunch of near misses and, throughout it all, a lot of heart. Successful productions always come with flaws; in fact, sometimes the technically ‘perfect’ productions don’t reach deeply enough emotionally to make a lasting impression. Congratulations to Taintor and company for deciding to go for a bold stroke. This unadorned staging is little clunky on occasion and sometimes downright confusing. But there are numerous glimpses of brilliance as well. Keep an eye on this enterprising company. There may well be great work to come.
David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.