The Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production of “Henry IV” was ambitious, and in some ways this reach was clear, but the lighting, set, costumes and directorial decisions combined into a show that was visually stunning and thought-provoking.
In part, the ambition of the performance came from the decision to combine parts one and two of William Shakespeare’s historical play “Henry IV.” With a run time of three hours and 10 minutes, the audience sat through a lot of sixteenth-century English to enjoy the play. While this didn’t make the performance any weaker, and allowed audiences to see a real resolution to all conflicts presented (which would have been lost if the play had only included part one), it gave the actors and designers more work to do engaging the audience.
Another interesting decision was casting women in the important male roles of King Henry IV, the rebellious nobleman Harry Percy (Hotspur) and the witty thief Falstaff. The decision was explained by dramaturgs Julius Cruz and Eddie Vitcavage as an opportunity to showcase the skills actresses learn and practice but rarely get to use in female roles.
The Dramaturg’s note explained, “We’d see a woman commanding an army, ruling a kingdom or finding love in a world where she is treated as she should be: Equal.”
In addition to providing actresses with opportunities, this decision also gives the audience a new lens through which to consider gender roles and characters, in Shakespeare’s time and our own.
These decisions, while ambitious, largely succeeded. While the show was long, the second half was full of action, climaxes and change which kept things rolling and gave a complete portrayal of themes and characters. The actresses certainly brought their own flare to the male roles and it was refreshing to see a cast that valued skill and opportunity over historical accuracy.
There are some less-than-perfect aspects of the play: Erin Cessna’s repetitive angry speeches in the role of Hotspur all sort of blend together and become monotonous after a while, and some of the first sword fights seem a little forced and unnecessary but these are small complaints about a production that overall is visually stunning.
The set is very impressive: Large black banners with dark red icons provide a sense of intensity and larger-than-life power. The images on the banners – things like a sword, a tree, a woman and a lion – are prominent in different scenes, reflective of certain themes or characters. Rearranging these drapes along with a brown frayed curtain creates very different settings easily.
During the battle at Shrewsbury, the set becomes very sparse and the audience can see straight back to the exposed piping, cinder block walls and electrical sockets at the back of the stage. This barrenness gives an interesting emphasis to the events taking place.
There are quite a few props, but their complexity doesn’t hinder the production and gives the performance a very put-together feel. The use of what seemed to be genuine swords is also well done. Not only does their reflective nature and quantity give certain scenes a dramatic flair and interesting visual composition, but the decision raised the stakes during fight scenes in an interesting way.
Shakespeare is well-known for giving attention to both low-brow and high-brow society, and that definitely comes through with this performance. The setting and lighting made clear distinctions between the cold cruelty of Henry IV’s court and the cheerful, seedier atmosphere found in taverns. These taverns were given a bit of a “Titanic” third-class party kind of vibe, which ultimately gave the audience a lot to think about: By portraying this less well-refined side of life in a fun and well-meaning light, the ultimate decision of Henry V to choose duty over friendship becomes more contentious. Everything from the costumes to the acting contributes to these binaries and raises questions for the audience.
Shakespeare can be hard to sit through, especially if it’s not your thing, but the first and last scenes of the play could have come straight out of “Game of Thrones.” They were visually and musically intense and raised important themes, which is all art can hope to do.
If you’re looking to enjoy some intense drama and compelling themes, “Henry IV” wil be in the Harriet S. Jorgenson theater until Sunday, May 5.
Alex Houdeshell is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.