Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Afternoon in Prospect Park: Rebellious Subjects Theatre's "Henry IV" at the Music Pagoda

Exactly a year ago on the last Sunday in August, we discovered the Rebellious Subjects Theatre company's first show, a terrific site-specific Twelfth Night at Goodbye Blue Monday in Bushwick. Today we were privileged to see the first half of this summer's much grander and more ambitious Shakespeare production of Henry IV and Henry V in an appropriately medieval-ish rustic setting, Prospect Park's often-overlooked Music Pagoda.

All the performances had been scheduled to start at 4:30 p.m. on three weekends from August 22 through September 6, but yesterday's performance of Henry IV, a seamless amalgam of the separate Part I and Part II plays, was postponed to 12:30 p.m. today by Saturday's Spike Lee-produced extravaganza memorializing Michael Jackson and celebrating the late King of Pop's 51st birthday.

We ate an early light lunch, and having just missed the B48 bus on Lorimer Street, we took the L and Q trains to the pointy corner where Flatbush Avenue intersects with Empire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue and walked into Prospect Park past Lefferts Homestead and the Carousel to the underutilized Music Pagoda. From boyhood "mountain climbing" expeditions with our dad in this part of the park, we vaguely recall the Olmstead and Vaux-designed original music pagoda, which burned down in 1968 but we remember coming to the rebuilt one with our first girlfriend in 1971.

The only time we read Henry IV Part I was in our Midwood High School Shakespeare class with Mr. Grebanier, and we'd never seen a theater production. We knew the basic plot of Henry IV Part II but went to Wikipedia this morning to check out the articles on both plays. Frankly, we were dubious about combining them, but under the direction of Elyzabeth Gorman, assisted by Melissa Zygmant, the Rebellious Subjects flawlessly melded the two history plays.

The setting was utilized to good effect, with the stage of the music pagoda employed for the scenes at the court of the put-upon King Henry IV, father of the prodigal Prince Hal, and and of the court of the rebels, Northumberland and his son Hotspur, his brother Worcester, and the other aggrieved nobles.

The grounds in front of the pagoda featured the battle scenes and the mostly comic doings of Falstaff and his riotous retinue, bringing the action to the feet of the audience, which started out relatively small and grew as the play progressed. It was interesting to see people passing by stopping and then being so interested that they stood in the audience for the rest of the performance.

Smart people who planned to come took blankets, as the ground was rather muddy from all the rain. We watched a towheaded four-year-old or so boy, walking by with his parents, who stood transfixed by the scene late in play when the king is falling ill and talking to his heir, in which Steve Viola (Henry IV) and Montgomery Sutton (Prince Hal) excelled. Sutton was impressive as the dissolute companion of Falstaff and as defender of his father's throne - and ultimately, at play's end, King Henry V; the transition, leading to his rejection of Falstaff, seems quite natural and consistent with the prince's character.

Falstaff always seems like a foolproof role, and Jonathan Levy had the comic heft and bluster to get lots of laughs from the audience. Bryn Boice as a dithery Mistress Quickly and Sutton Crawford a feisty Doll Tearsheet were also very funny. We thought Ben Friesen, whom we'd seen last year as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, did a lot with the small role of Bardolph, one of Falstaff's flunkies and companions in dissolution; Bardolph seemed sardonic, bemused and somewhat removed from the drunken, bombastic comedy around him.

All the actors handled the Shakespearean dialogue naturally, but Nick Reinhardt as Hotspur was especially effective. Hotspur gets some of the best speeches in Part I, and here he seemed both passionate and fiery without losing any dignity. These are very male-dominated plays, but Tiffany Abercrombie stood out as Lady Percy, Hotspur's devoted wife, who here seems to struggle with suppressing her fear and doubts about the whole rebellion that eventually makes her a young widow. We were particularly impressed with her final speech, to her distraught father-in-law Northumberland (Eric Rice), whose own veneer of high-minded detachment finally cracks when he learns of Hotspur's death.

The fight scenes were spectacular, and the decision to have them fought with arms as swords, made the action - which can be kind of stilted in some productions - incredibly visceral as hand-to-hand combat takes places almost in the audience. Ben Rezendes, who played the young John of Lancaster, the king's other son, as sensitive and vulnerable, did really good work as fight choreographer, assisted by Jon Ledoux (who played the Chief Justice as dour, digniried and committed to the rule of law even when it's against his own interests).

The costumes were traditional fourteenth-century, we think, and while the scenery was limited to the merest hints of royalty and nobility onstage, the illusion of time and place held. A wooden wagon/cart served multiple purposes in front for the scenes with Falstaff's crew and others. The transitions between the royal court, the rebel intrigues, and the carousing lower orders were handled skillfully as actors "offstage" managed to seem there but not there as they "disappeared" within full view of the audience.

Frankly, the play started off a bit slowly for us, but soon its rhythms took over. The two parts of Henry IV don't have the immediate Shakespeare-in-the-park appeal of the comedies or tragedies; even among the history plays, they're not usually as gripping as Richard II, Richard III, or Henry V, although the comic business of Falstaff and his companions (here,Drew De Jesus was a sparkling, slightly nasty Pistol) helps.

The combined Henry IV began with Patrick Woodall, co-founder with Lauren Ferebee of Rebellious Subjects Theatre, addressing the audience as the Chorus, after which he sat down on someone's picnic blanket - still in costume, though he smoked a cigarette - and watched the play with the rest of audience, until near the close of the play when he returned to the "stage" to speak again.

It was a terrific production of Henry IV (you can find a more professional review by Jennifer Rathbone at TheaterOnline) and we wish we could have gone back after it ended close to 3 p.m. for today's 4:30 p.m. of Henry V, featuring many of the same actors.

Hopefully we can return next weekend for that. The Rebellious Subjects Theatre again made the last Sunday in August a Shakespearean pleasure for us, and we're grateful to them, as well as 7th Sign Theatre Productions and the Prospect Park Alliance, also involved in these Henry plays in the park.

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