Henry IV, Part One – Ladies Fight, Oh, What a Fight

henry1

Henry IV, Part One, Photo Credit: Will Kirk

A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE

This may be my first time reviewing Baltimore Shakespeare Factory but it’s far from my first time seeing them.  I generally love their stuff and that’s funny, because I’m no great fan of Shakespearean shows, which are often either ridiculously academic or eye-rollingly twee.  BSF, though, has a laid-back, fun vibe.  Though their outdoor productions are very, very low tech (expect to sneak peeks of the actors sitting backstage on their laptops through a backdrop continuously flapping in the wind), the company always seems to be having a genuinely good time, and, what’s even better, to actually like each other.  This time, the Factory is cranking out Henry IV, Part One, a venerable ol’ history made a bit fresher by a twist:  this usually (almost) all-male cast has been flipped to an all-female one.  And, despite a rather defensive program note from director Thomas Delise, who insists that critics “react with great skepticism, if not downright hostility” toward all-gal Shakespeare, I found myself feeling neither particularly skeptical nor hostile.  What I was was torn.  One the one hand, Henry IV, Part One doesn’t have the same textual “meat” for cross-casting that, say, Macbeth (done excellently by The Boom Theatre Co. earlier this year) does.  It’s much more straightforward; there isn’t as much wrestling with gender performance or identity in this one.  And I sort of wish that Delise would have let these women play women instead of women playing men.  It always amuses me when a director makes the bold move to cast all women in such testicular piece and then frantically spends the rest of the time trying to make us forget that they actually are women.  Such is the case, here.  From the gestures to the costuming to the vocalization, Delise goes to great pains to suppress any stray double X.  Let them, or some of them, play women and the decision suddenly has weight instead of looking like a marketing gimmick or a footnote.  We’re then left with a delicious alternative history where “king” means “queen” and there are hardly men anywhere, anymore.  On the other hand, I believe that the decision was less textually motivated than a vehicle to give female company members more opportunity to perform and that, I can get behind, especially when it means I get to see a cast as fantastic as this one.  Seriously, it’s a dream team.  Caitlin Carbone, who has a knack for taking dusty characters and shaking them forcibly into living people (nicely demonstrated in last season’s Romeo and Juliet at Spotlighters) takes on Hotspur, a rebel leader out to pluck a feather from King Henry’s cap.  She’s hot indeed, all dick and swagger and impulse.  It’s genius.  Ann Turiano is as solid is they come and having a fucking ball as the Prince, Henry’s prodigal son.  Kay-Megan Washington schools some children onstage to such an extent that I had a lot of trouble believing that this is her first Shakespearean experience.  Her Falstaff, BFF to Prince Henry, is funny, no, really fucking funny, not just “it’s Shakespeare and I’m laughing to prove I’m cultured enough to get the joke” funny.  What what she does in Act II, Scene IV when they’re talking about the robberies.  She has perfect, enviable control and, in terms of technique, is the best here.  Valerie Dowdle’s King Henry gets pleasingly heated – she’s a rare actor, one I have known a long time as an “It”.  She’s someone who commands your attention immediately and dares you to look away after that.  And there are more, so many more, all of them gold.  Alicia Stanley and Kat McKerrow (who is MVP here, as she plays, like, fifty fucking characters) pop up as the Earl of Northumberland and the Earl of Worcester, not-too-willing wranglers of their nephew’s loose cannon antics.  They share some looks that the parents of any teen would recognize.  Katharine Airyan does a neat double duty.  She’s at first leaping around like an excitable deer as Poins, one of Prince Henry’s motley crew of bar-fly friends, and then she switcharoos later on into the rather dour Sir Richard Vernon.  And Jessica Behar is a right hoot, especially as the ill-tempered hostess of the house, badgering away at that scoundrel Falstaff.  The only real thorn in my paw was the stage combat (Tegan Williams).  Williams is a fantastic actor, here eking more than I would have thought possible out of the thankless role of Lady Percy, Hotspur’s wife.  But her sword fighting choreography just didn’t look good this time, to put it bluntly.  What should be a spectacular closing battle was, unfortunately due to the incredibly slow “more grunting than connecting” combat sequences, less of a clang and more of a whimper.

THE BOTTOM LINE:  If the performances in  were a little less firecracker and the cast a little less bangarang, the gender cross-casting in Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s Henry IV, Part One might have earned a G for gimmick, especially in the way it’s employed.  But they are amazing and it is really tight, so that’s all one, right?  These are basically the best actors, M,F, or Other, working in Baltimore right now.  And that is more than fucking enough.  Buy the bug spray and see it.

Running at Baltimore Shakespeare Factory until August 23rd

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