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It’s easy to applaud the impulses behind Tom Mallan’s assertively grungy, offhandedly Shakespearean, mixed-media music-hall pageant The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V. You’ll gather from the spelling in that title that adaptor/director Mallan has decided to foreground the evening’s women—and who, after all, doesn’t wince a bit at the Bard’s usual sidelining of the fairer sex (however explicable it may have been in an age when women were banned from the stage)?
Mallan’s solution to gender imbalance is to assign virtually all of the hi(y?)storical content in his condensation of Shakespeare’s three Henry plays and their prequel Richard II to the Boar’s Head Tavern’s resident troupe, the Harlotry Players of Eastcheap. The Boar’s Head, you’ll recall, is the establishment frequented by Prince Hal and his fat friend Falstaff. The HPofE are a gaggle of ladies of the evening (one of them a gander in disguise) who, when not plying tavern guests with sack and spiriting them into a hallway to make the beast with two backs, spend their evenings stomping and singing about royal strategizing from a long slender stage. We hear of Richard’s resignation, Percy’s perfidy, Bolingbroke’s bravery, and I’m pretty sure Owen Glendower’s name comes up, though I couldn’t tell you in what context exactly. They’re rushing through rather a lot of hystery in fairly short order, complete with high kicks and the occasional kazoo solo.
Now, while the Bard didn’t invent the Harlotry Players, he does provide many of the words to their songs, which are otherwise equal parts English music hall and Brecht/Weill. Assisted by fake newsreel footage projected on a screen above the stage, the HPofE serves much the same function for their customers that The Daily Show serves for cable viewers. Some of their musical efforts are merely decorative, others prove downright catchy—the refrain “Where is Hal?/Where is Hal?/Where is the heir apparent?” will likely pursue you out of Artisphere and onto the Metro.
But centering things in the tavern rather than at court alters the material’s general thrust in ways not always helpful to an evening that’s going to clock in at just under three hours. While Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 ordinarily have quite a bit of armed conflict between them, and Henry V builds to the mother of all military routs, Henry (I)V emphasizes sack over sackings, sluts over sovereigns, and ends up considerably less rousing. Basically, it’s lots of talk of mead and wenching, no “We few, we happy few….”
Oh, there are details to keep an audience intrigued. A perpetually tipsy Prince Hal, played by Jay Hardee in top hat and tails (the period seems to be the early 20th century) can’t keep his hands off his buddy Poins (James Finley) at first, though that infatuation proves little more than a phase, outgrown at about the same moment Hal switches allegiance from Falstaff to his royal dad. With Christopher Henley playing both corpulent clown and musty monarch, the director can draw attention to similarities in Hal’s father figures even as the Bard is contrasting them.
But subtlety isn’t really the evening’s strong suit. Hal can’t just grow up to be a man, he must grow up to be a jack-booted dictator. Nor can an opportunity for smut or single entendre be allowed to go unseized—should someone say “hard,” it’s invariably accompanied by a crotch grab; the Earl of Athol’s name is rendered “aaath-hole”—all of which wears thin a bit earlier than either Mallan or his Harlotry Players seem to realize.
It says something that for all the tricks the director’s come up with to ornament the text, the evening’s most affecting scenes are its least fussy—a pair of moments featuring Hardee and Henley as Hal and the aged king Henry. Where Henley blends bits of Jackie Gleason and Robert Downey Jr. into his Falstaff, his Henry IV is pure Paul Scofield, remonstrating and then forgiving Hal in a gravelly growl that aches with regret.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” he intones, and all the evening’s frippery briefly falls away.