Curtain Calls

Review: 'Henry IV, Part 1'
Hilberry stages 'spot on' production of Shakespeare history play

I usually don't pay much attention to the people sitting around me when I'm out and about reviewing shows – unless they're cute, of course – but last Friday night was different.
Arriving at my seat for the opening of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1" at Detroit's Hilberry Theatre I was greeted by a rather expensive-looking coat draped across the chair. Its owner, an elderly but very distinguished-appearing gentleman, smiled, apologized and quickly removed it. I observed that the frail man reeked of education – a retired college professor, perhaps? – but I quickly forgot about him once I sat down and began to peruse the evening's program.
Until, that is, he initiated a fascinating discussion – or monologue, really – about Shakespeare's history plays with his seatmates. It quickly became obvious that the man knows The Bard and his works quite well – and the history behind the stories, too – but something was bothering him.
The set, it seemed, was not to his liking; he didn't understand designer Larry Kaushansky's modernistic concept.
(But then again, neither did I at first. Is the set supposed to represent a run-down playground? A penitentiary? Or a gulag, maybe? And what the heck does the "R2" logo mean that hangs prominently above the set? Trust me: If a "D2" logo also appeared, I would have been out of there in a flash!)
As a result of his initial observations, it was quite apparent that the gentleman was somewhat apprehensive about the evening's presentation.
And, quite frankly, so was I.
For I've seen far too many productions that have been ruined by well-intentioned directors with a driving need to foist their own bizarre concepts upon an unsuspecting audience, usually under the guise of making Shakespeare "relevant." Such travesties usually do more harm than good; rather than build an audience for The Bard's works, they drive them away!
Thankfully, that's NOT the case with director Gillian Eaton's dynamic production!
As the gentleman behind me so succinctly stated at the end of the evening's energetic performance, it was "spot on"!
What Eaton did was not "update" the play, as I suspect my gentleman friend and I both feared, but give it a focus – a flavor – twenty-first century audiences can recognize.
Because "Henry IV, Part 1" contains themes of war and politics, Eaton's production has a military tone to it. Wisely, however, she doesn't pinpoint any specific twentieth century war; the costumes are somewhat recognizable, but not totally so. (World War II? The Cold War? The urban riots of the 1960s? Mad Max?)
And because the play also contains themes of childhood rebellion, England's underbelly could easily be mistaken for Trident Night at the Detroit Eagle. (Or for my straight readers, Hell's Angels at the local pool hall.)
The result, then, is a play that SOUNDS like Shakespeare, but certainly doesn't LOOK like Shakespeare! And surprisingly, this odd mix works quite well!
Chronologically, "Henry IV, Part 1" is the second of Shakespeare's "histories" that recounts the saga of Henry Bolingbroke and his royal offspring. So Eaton opens her production with a very brief recap of its predecessor, "King Richard II" – hence the "R2" logo mentioned earlier. (Richard is hanged, and the "R2" logo is replaced by one that reads "H4," all of which occurs in less than a minute.)
With the throne barely his, Henry is already being challenged by three former allies who plot to take control of England. If that's not enough, his son – Prince Hal – has taken up with a crowd of young hoodlums. He's become an embarrassment to the crown, and daddy believes it's time for the young king-to-be to assume his rightful role in the kingdom.
Which Hal does, as history buffs know, helping to quell the rebellion. Well, at least for the moment.
To many, attending a Shakespeare play is as exciting as watching ice melt. Those who feel that way, however, should experience Eaton's production. Not only is it briskly and imaginatively staged, her actors expertly deliver the dialogue as if they actually understand what they are saying – a rarity, indeed! (Nothing kills a Shakespeare play faster than actors who read the lines as if it's meaningless poetry.)
Excellent performances are given by Mark Robson (King Henry IV), Chris Roady (Prince Hal), Nick DePinto (Thomas Percy), and Patrick Moltane (Henry "Hotspur" Percy). And Mike Metzel looks simply gorgeous as Mistress Quickly.
But it's Mike Anthony who steals the show as the round-bellied, lily-livered Sir John Falstaff. It's a great role, and a performance that matches.
"Henry IV, Part I" Performed in Repertory at the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 cass Ave., Detroit, through May 5. Tickets: $15 – $22. (313) 577-2960.
The Bottom Line: A top-notch production that doesn't substitute style over substance.

Tidbits: Theater News from Around Town
'Smokey Joe' a no-show; Improv madness; Concert for a Cure

ITEM: Those planning on attending "Smokey Joe's CafŽ" this weekend at Detroit's Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts now have an unexpected opening in their schedule, as the show has been cancelled. Tickets will be refunded at their point of purchase.
ITEM: Ten of the area's best improv troupes are battling all month long to become the champions of the 2005 March Improv Madness Invitational Tournament.
Held at Ann Arbor's Improv Inferno, the event pits two groups in head-to-head comedy competition every Thursday night, with the audience determining the winner. The MIMI Finals will be held March 31 at 8 p.m., followed by the MIMI All Star Show featuring one representative from each team at 10 p.m.
Participants include two groups from Improv Inferno's own ensemble and training program (The People's Republic of Funny and Jackson Jill), two groups from the University of Michigan (Witt's End and ComCo) and the following champions from Improv Inferno's Thursday night Catfight: Men in Shirts, Eye Candy, Snakes Eating Potatoes, Tiger Ride, The Franchise and Six Month Suspension.
Improv Inferno is located at 309 S. Main Street in Ann Arbor. For reservations or information call 734-214-7080 or visit
ITEM: And don't forget to order you're your tickets for this Monday night's "Detroit Concert for a Cure" at the Gem Theatre, a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tickets are $25 and they can be purchased by calling 313-963-9800.