Henry IV, Part 1 at Tulane’s Lupin Theater through July 30
For the first time in its 29 year history, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival is presenting Henry IV, Part 1, a tale of political infighting, warring battles on the fields of England, and interpersonal relationships that mutate throughout the course of the production’s two hours.
This second installment of Shakespeare’s eight plays that cover the War of the Roses picks up as King Henry IV, who, as Bolingbroke deposed Richard II, confronts both Hotspur, his former ally who’s now leading a rebellion in Wales and Scotland, and his son Prince Hal (the future King Henry V), who initially seems more interested in whoring, drinking and generally having fun with, and sometimes at the expense of, his pal Falstaff, a paunchy, vain, and boastful older knight.
Got all that?
As with Shakespeare’s other history plays, while the story, more or less based on fact, can be quite interesting in a soap opera-like way (one can easily fall into a Wikipedia black hole reading about all the characters and plot lines), it can take a little while to get into when watching on stage. Unlike Elizabethan audiences who would have likely caught the play’s references and been aware as to what events they recalled, modern day theatergoers must contend not only with the Bard’s sometimes dense language but, understandably, not really knowing, at first, what the f*ck is going on. And, worse, not caring.
Just to be clear, I come not to bury Shakespeare, but to praise him. In nearly all his plays, as the plot mechanics click into place and the characters reveal their depths, his expert dramaturgy and glorious language engross all who’ll let themselves be so enraptured.
With the history plays, however, even at their best, they can now seem a bit distant, like reading a newspaper from 50 years ago. Or 100. Or 200.
It is thus incumbent upon a director to give such a play some degree of relevancy. How does it apply to our times? What parallels does it offer? It need not be rewritten, an approach appropriate for ancient Greek plays (e.g., Sam Mayer’s recent The Cuck, a reworking of Euripides’ Electra), but, without some (re)interpretation, events that took place 600 years ago an ocean away can seem like small potatoes given all the challenges this planet is facing today.
And that’s where Burton Tedesco’s Henry IV, Part 1 fails to satisfy. Overall, it gets a solid “B”. The pacing is good. The entire cast inhabits the same universe. Despite its multiple settings, the staging is consistently fluid.
By maintaining the play’s action in the opening years of the 15th century, however, Tedesco lost me. Suellen da Costa Coelho’s costumes might be historically accurate but, featuring tunics and chain mail, the effect could not have been more distancing than if Brecht had been the director.
Certainly we realize there’s a tussle over land and power. But with Tedesco not delineating what it all means in today’s terms–are we dealing with Putins? Trumps? Tiananmen Square protestors? January 6 insurrectionists?–I found it difficult to be emotionally invested in what was unfolding before me.
Except, that is, when Jake Bartush as Hal and Mike Harkins as Falstaff were on stage. For they approach their canonical roles with supreme intelligence, scrupulously mining the text for every nugget of Shakespeare’s that can inform their characterizations, line by line and word by word.
With a face that reminds one of Velázquez’ portraits of King Philip IV of Spain, Bartush successfully navigates the contours of his part as he sheds the prince’s youthful debauchery to take on a more mature function in his father’s court. Lean as a whippet, Bartush colors his Prince of Wales with playfulness, nobility, passion, and smarts.
Looking a bit like a forebear of Ignatius J. Reilly, Harkins makes Falstaff a rapscallion, for sure, but also endows him with o’erarching pride, grubby desperation, a casual duplicity, and just enough self-awareness to evoke pity when Hal turns on him. Though about twenty years too young for the role, Harkins convincingly portrays all aspects of the errant knight; I’d love to see him two decades from now in an age-appropriate performance.
Watching Bartush and Harkins, singly and as they play off each other, I realized how much I’ve missed seeing them on our stages during the pandemic’s overlong stay.
As Harry “Hotspur” Percy, Brittany N. Williams radiates a fiery determination. That’s fine, but she hardly ever varies her delivery. Hotspur may be a ball of energy, but too often Williams rushes through her speeches, neither shaping her words nor selectively giving weight to the more potent phrases. It’s thus never clear what exactly motivates this Hotspur–a quest for power? a righting of wrongs? anger at the King? all of the above?–and Williams’ scenes, except for one tender one with Lady Percy, tend to blur together.
Like Williams, Silas Cooper as King Henry IV would do well to slow down, especially in the first scene when he’s setting the plot in motion; much as I don’t want things to drag, in a play’s opening moments, it’s okay to take one’s time as we ease into an unfamiliar world. Cooper does improve as the play progresses, especially in his confrontations with his son.
Though there are no weak links among the supporting cast, Monica R. Harris, Shelley Johnson and Matthew Raetz stand out as various nobles and low lifes.
Scenic Designer Joan Long has placed an imposing set of tall wooden boards against the upstage wall which well-represents Henry’s castle as well as serving as a backdrop for battlefield scenes. Martin Sachs’ lighting expertly defines differing locales. As always, Tedesco has done an excellent job of choreographing the fight scenes.
I can appreciate that for its first Henry IV, Part 1 the NO Shakespeare Festival might’ve wanted a very traditional, by-the-book approach. I just wish Tedesco’s production had spoken to its audiences at Tulane as much as Shakespeare’s had at the Globe.
[For tickets and more info, go to https://neworleansshakespeare.org/collections/season-29/products/king-henry-iv-part-1]
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Werq The World Tour 2022 at the Saenger Theatre continuing on tour through September 25
RuPaul’s Drag Race: Werq The World Tour 2022 recently touched down for an evening of high-energy entertainment before a packed house at the Saenger Theatre. Was it fun? Guuuurrrrrllllll, yas indeed!
The last time I saw one of these RPDR extravaganzas was seven years ago at The Civic Theater when Bianca Del Rio, the then-reigning Queen, headlined. A half dozen or so RPDR alums did their thing along with a mini-version of “Snatch Game” and some audience participation. I described it as “a vaudeville show for the 21st century”.
Well, that was then, this is now.
Not only did Werq The World Tour 2022 play in a venue twice the size of the Civic. Not only did it feature production values like you’d find in one of Las Vegas’ premier hotel/casinos. Not only were there 2 sexy gals and 4 very sexy guys engaged as hardworking backup dancers. But the evening actually had a storyline to it. Well, not quite a plot. Let’s just call it a theme. It may not have been Shakespeare but nobody complained.
The gist of it was that an experiment had gone wrong sending us spiraling through time. On a gigantic video screen, numerals whirled and when they finally stopped a date appeared; the hope was that it would be 2022 and we’d all be back in the present. That didn’t happen, but the dates did inspire the next production number complete with fancy shmancy projections. We went from 10 Million BC to the Wild West of 1890 to 1519 and the Spanish Empire. Ya gotta have a gimmick, eh?
My favorites? 1977 which transported us to New York City’s Studio 54 and a great medley of disco songs done by Angeria Paris VanMicheals. And 1981 with its homage to the MTV era featuring fabulous tunes and videos which Daya Betty rocked.
Asia O’Hara oversaw the proceedings as a most convivial Mistress of Ceremonies, making amazingly quick costume changes and never taking herself too seriously; she wittily introduced herself as “Asia O’Hara or Bob the Drag Queen was not available.” Utterly at ease chatting with audience members, when she found out a Lakeview gal in the front row was celebrating a birthday, she cheekily promised (or threatened) “a big Black drag queen” as a birthday present.
No RPDR show would be complete without an audience participation segment; Werq The World serves up “Lip Sync In Time”. We were fortunate to have two game and quite talented contestants, both from the West Bank. Dustin from Marrero claimed that he’d “been waiting for this moment all my life,” and he certainly did himself proud, but Rayne from Algiers got the biggest round of applause. I would’ve called it a tie and given them each a crown for having the chutzpah to strut their stuff in front of 2,600 people.
One might only have wished for a little more variety among the performers which also included Kameron Michaels, DeJa Skye, Jorgeous, and Jaida Essence Hall. Individually, they were all dynamic and gorgeous in a Vegas headliner sort of way. I kinda wished, though, that there had been one or two more singular queens like Alaska Thunderf*ck 5000, Ivy Winters, Jinkx Monsoon or Sharon Needles who had been part of the 2015 tour.
That said, that might occur at other shows as not every queen performs at every stop; others on the Werq The World Tour 2022 include Rosé, Plastique Tiara, Vanessa Vanjie Mateo, and Yvie Oddly. I’m not sure, however, if each does her own act or if they’re slotted in to the various “years” that remain consistent throughout the tour. If you see it elsewhere, do let me know.
For the finale, the seven queens entered the stage one at a time as though enclosed in a chrysalis and then spread their arms to each display a spectacular cape, a reference to O’Hara’s butterfly reveal during the Drag Race Season 10 finale.
After two-plus exhilarating time-tripping hours, it was time to fly off to other cities and continue to werq that RuPaul Drag Race magic across the continent.
[Tickets and information about future performances on the tour are available at https://vossevents.com/werq-the-world-tour/]