Saratoga Shakespeare is celebrating its 18th season of presenting free Shakespeare in Congress Park by offering a challenging and bold production of Henry IV. The boldness comes by the troupe combining both Parts I and II in a single version. This means reducing about seven hours of playing time into a two hour performance and using only eight performers to play a multitude of roles.
In terms of storytelling, the uncredited adaptation works surprisingly well. The story of Prince Hal growing from a party boy to a mature ruler is effectively captured – thanks to a clear, focused portrayal of Hal by Woodrow Proctor.
Indeed, his reconciliation with his father King Henry IV is one of the most effective moments in the presentation. The tender, yet dynamic, scene between young Proctor and the veteran Broadway performer Kevin McGuire is emotionally powerful and totally honest. McGuire brings a mature gravitas to the moment, while Proctor defines a son determined to win the respect of a parent.
The dramatic scenes are especially effective, but a problem with the show is a lack of genuine comedy. The scalawag, Sir John Falstaff, lacks the good natured humor that usually endears him to the audience. Though Ed Swidey is able to show his grasp of character and acting chops in the revealing “honor” monologue, he plays the rascal as a dark Rasputin type. It’s a valid choice that justifies his punishment at play’s end when as Henry V, Hal banishes the old knight. Yet, it deprives the work of needed merriment.
Arguably the most controversial choice in a production that adheres to few traditions is to have the rebel Sir Percy, known as Hotspur, played by a female. Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch is a marvel in the role forcing the audience to ignore gender and concentrate on character. Vetter-Drusch delivers, making Hotspur a fully developed character who is as important to the play as is Hal. It’s refreshing casting by director David Girard that elevates the entire production.
It is not the only example of gender-bending casting in the presentation, but it is the most effective. Males playing female roles or females playing traditional male roles is just one way the eight member cast shows their diverse skills. All but Proctor play multiple roles with amazing success.
Oddly, in the large outdoor space of Congress Park, it is the personal moments between two or three characters that find Shakespeare in the play. Other scenes, especially those in the Boar’s Head Tavern, are filled with distracting energy and the individual characters get lost in the hustle. The choice to let supporting characters laugh loudly and act as a cheering section for each of Falstaff’s asides does not help the character or the camaraderie within the scene. For sure it muffles the lines making them difficult to hear.
Casual nondescript dress is an economic necessity for a company that offers free theater in the park, but this presentation demands more definition with the clothing. Only the king's position is made clear through dress. The others seem randomly clothed, denying the status of a character.
Despite some problems, the Saratoga Shakespeare production is a success even though the presentation drops off a cliff after the energetic battle scenes. It makes the last 15 minutes seem an eternity, but what preceded the final scenes most always keeps your attention. More important, this non-traditional effort is a valid interpretation of what Shakespeare most likely intended.
Henry IV continues in Congress Park in Saratoga Springs through Saturday. It starts at 6 pm and is offered free of charge. It’s worth your time.
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
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