Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pieces of eight, or history versified: EclecticPond Theatre Company's fast-paced 'Wars of the Roses' makes two tetralogies accessible

William Shakespeare mined English history using source material that wouldn't pass muster today, but which formed the reigning national narrative and enabled him to apply both poetic and dramatic genius to ancient struggles for his nation's crown, all the while enhancing his growing reputation.

EclecticPond Theatre Company currently is offering a heart-healthy feast of the eight history
plays under the title "The Wars of the Roses." Early Sunday evening at the Irvington Lodge, I took in two of the eight — all put into fighting trim of less than an hour each — "Henry IV, Part 2" and "Henry V."

Not all that is trimmed out of these two plays is dispensable, of course, but to stress that would be to take a purist's view. On balance, I think these reductions work not only as tours de force for ETC's eight-person troupe, but also as a way of presenting some mighty historical dramas to a public that is unlikely to encounter the eight plays outside a festival setting.

In "Henry IV, Part 2," the conspiracy against which King Henry IV battles is efficiently sketched in, as his health declines and he frets about the wild oats sown by the heir to the throne.  In the realm of the future Henry V, the most eminent of the dissolute Prince Hal's companions, Sir John Falstaff, becomes in this production a lesser man dramatically if not in girth.

Prince Hal contemplates the crown as his father lies dying.
Of course, a substantially full-length version would scrupulously detail the disparate worlds the Prince bridges, eventually crossing over into the loftier one. In "Henry V," Hal's guilty conscience about his youthful misbehavior is eased by the patriotic task he takes on as a crowned monarch, under dubious legal authority, to subjugate France. The triumphant warrior as well as the painfully reformed successor to Henry IV was portrayed well by Zachariah Stonerock.

What I missed in Stonerock's performance Sunday, which may have been among the sacrifices that ruthless cutting entails, was a sense of Henry V's complexity. That would include, to accompany his growing political skill, a flawed moral nature that eventually (and eagerly) takes on deadlier forms than it could ever have assumed back when he was whiling away the hours in an Eastcheap tavern.
King Henry V dismisses his old chum Falstaff.

In contrast with the original, ETC's lowlife is largely dispensed with once Falstaff disappears. The fat knight conveniently collapses at the end of "Henry IV, Part 2," and this version doesn't even give him Mistress Quickly's sweet prose eulogy in "Henry V".

To the recorded accompaniment of muttered shouts and galloping horses, the warfare between the French and the invading English is quickly dispatched, The sense that a nation's fate hangs in the balance comes through. Once the turn in English fortunes toward victory is whipsawed into place, the alliance through marriage of Henry and the King of France's daughter, Catherine, is carefully staged.

EclecticPond's production, under the direction of Polly Heinkel, slows to a more measured pace in the charming dialogue between Henry and Katherine, royals untested in romance  negotiating the language barrier and flirting delicately. It's almost as if their impending union had not been virtually sealed in the coagulating blood (chiefly French) of the battlefield at Agincourt. Still, it was hard to mind the spaciousness of this dialogue in contrast to most of what preceded it, especially given the tenderness with which Stonerock and Frankie Bolda (as Katherine) handled the final scene.

The difficulty of staging the nation-shaping events of "Henry V" is directly addressed by the playwright in the initial speech of the Chorus, whose essential message remains intact here. Reliance on the Chorus elsewhere and the tendency of the monarch to speak expansively and formally — as if for all time — indicate Shakespeare's desire to have pageantry and patriotism rub shoulders with drama on equal terms. "O for a muse of fire to ascend," indeed!

That double purpose renders "Henry V" particularly inviting to cut. At this historical remove, the impression Shakespeare may have wanted to make on his Tudor sovereign can afford to be slighted somewhat. What remains is a brisk survey of Henry's maturation, statecraft, and appetite for conquest. It's stripped of some of its grandeur, perhaps, but comes fully alive in the energy and skill with which the ETC cast puts across the essence of these two plays.

[Photos by Zed Martinez]

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