Eighteen actors at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival apparently agree with a line heard in THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE.
“If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us.”
Before the dozen-and-a-half performers start HENRY IV, PART II, one comes forth to tell us that in The Bard’s day, the concept of a director had not yet come into being. Actors just got on stage and did what they did naturally.
Following this Elizabethan lead on the campus of DeSales University in Center Valley, the intrepid performers have been left to their own devices to stage the show. Each day at rehearsals, there wasn’t an individual in front of them yelling everything from “No, no, no, no, NO!” to “Leave that in!”
To make matters more arduous, the performers weren’t staging a famous Shakespeare play in which they might have already appeared, which would have given them a solid head start. According to Shakespearances.com – which tracks annual American productions of the Bard’s plays – HENRY IV, PART II is in 33rd place. To put it another way, since 1750 when historians started keeping records of significant New York productions, this play has received all of three in 373 years.
(And none has been announced for next season, either.)
Thus many of these performers were undoubtedly encountering such characters as Bullcraft, Doll and Mouldy for the first time. That had to add to the burden of directing themselves in what were uncharted artistic waters.
These nine Equity and nine not-yet-Equity members proved what Emily Dickinson once wrote: “We never know how high we are till we are called to rise.” For rise to great heights this cast did.
Obscure as HENRY IV, PART II is, it does have one of Shakespeare’s blue-chip and best-known characters: Sir John Falstaff. In this, uh, sequel to Part I, he has 641 lines; only 18 characters in all of the Bard’s other plays have more. The Festival is very lucky to have John Ahlin on hand to maneuver easily through his 11% of the script.
As the loveable rogue, Ahlin gets early laughs by expressing complete astonishment when someone insults him. He truly believes the criticism has no basis in fact.
In fact, it does. So do many others, as we’ll see for the next two-and-a-half hours. First and foremost is the Knight’s outright alcoholism. Ahlin gives an ode to sherry that shows more love and devotion than can be found in a certain famous Frankie Valli song.
Ahlin gets even bigger and better laughs when he insists that he’s young. (The actor was already playing an adult role on Broadway during the Carter Administration.) Falstaff’s bravado can only last so long, however. Watching Ahlin painfully struggle to pick up the sword that he dropped is uncontestable proof: “I’m old; I’m old,” he says ruefully, getting our sympathy.
Falstaff springs back to youth near play’s end, when events lead the Knight to believe he’s golden. Ahlin’s face soon reveals that the gold is actually fool’s gold.
Trans, non-binary performer Eli Lynn plays Prince Hal. An audience may need some minutes to become accustomed to this very non-traditional casting; still, little time will pass before many theatergoers settle in and accept Lynn in the role. At the end, Lynn proves to be to the manor and manner born.
One of Lynn’s best scenes occurs late in the play, when Hal assumes that Daddy has died. He dons the crown to see how it’ll fit on his soon-to-be-coroneted head.
Not so fast. His Majesty awakes is furious that his son has jumped the gun. Although Jim Ireland had shown us how sickly the King is during the early scenes, here he finds a second wind of hurricane-like proportions. All that – and what happens afterward – he masterfully maneuvers.
There’s no costume designer listed, either. Who had the idea of putting The King in his underwear in his opening scene? What a smart way to establish that, underneath it all, His Majesty is just like you and me.
What’s always great fun in seeing a rarely performed Shakespeare is hearing an expression or two that has over the centuries become a much-quoted phrase. You may exclaim “Oh, so that´s where that came from!” after Mistress Quickly complains that Falstaff has “eaten me out of house and home.” At the very least, you might nod in acknowledgment when the King ruefully state, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
That line opens the play’s eighth scene out of 19. Will directors who attend this excellent actor-driven HENRY IV, PART TWO spend the final 11 scenes uneasily worrying about their own theatrical crowns that they’ve enjoyed wearing?