Sunday, June 1, 2014

Edward Gero, Stacy Keach, and Rolling Thunder in DC

Friday afternoon at rush hour on Memorial Day weekend I thought it would be smart to head for the Beltway alongside 70,000 bikers bound for the annual Rolling Thunder event in Washington, D.C. It was a beautiful day, and I had time to enjoy it during the minutes I spent sitting semi-stationary on I-70 with my engine turned off, listening to the low rumblings of motorcyclists weaving through the parked cars and zipping by on the shoulder. At last I got to Arlington, where I stayed with a friend, and the next morning spent only fifteen minutes immobile in traffic on Memorial Bridge on my way to Washington and the Shakespeare Theatre. (A note to all U.S.
Shakespeare companies and drama departments: we are not Canadian. It's "theater.")

At 1:30 things were looking good on 6th and F Streets outside Harman Hall, site of the current combined production of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, directed by Michael Kahn and playing through June 8th. No, the theater manager hadn't let me leave my attractive flyers advertising my "PAINT: A Shakespearean Novel" alongside their brochures announcing upcoming productions, but then, I hadn't expected her to. The plays were due to start in a half hour, and I was waiting at one of the fifty Starbucks(es) within a mile radius of Capitol Hill (as it seems). But then came a rumbling sound, which grew louder and louder, until around the corner rode THIS:

Actually, that was shot the following day a few miles away at the Lincoln Memorial. But these same motorcycles did pass in a seemingly endless line past Harman Hall. Rolling Thunder! Could Shakespeare compete with the noise?

He could! Inside the theater, motorcycles were forgotten. Eyes were trained on, ears attuned to, the stage. And I found the Washington Shakespeare Theatre's double-barrelled production of two Shakespeare history plays (on alternating nights during the week, and together on Saturdays) the tour de force I'd heard it was. Double Shakespeare is a good idea, as well as a Shakespearean one. While directors commonly produce only part 1 of Henry IV, the two plays' paired performance is argued for by the plays themselves, which enact a continuous story: the tale of King Henry IV's struggle to quell civil wars engendered by his usurpation of the crown, and the related drama of his royal son's coming of age in London taverns and on English battlefields, all in the first years of the fifteenth century. 

The history plays' most unusual feature is their looping construction, whereby each of eight plays signals -- first, last, and throughout -- its connection to the others, and thus its characters' entrapment in a relentless historical cycle. It was Shakespeare, not George Lucas, who invented prequels and sequels. (Okay, it was Aeschylus. But Shakespeare re-invented them.) Edward Gero was a compelling Duke of York in 1996, in the Folger's combined production of the three Henry VI plays, also directed by Kahn. Kahn's current production excludes Richard II, the first play in this second tetralogy, but reminds us of the deposed Richard's looming shadow by starting and ending with voiced-over lines from the unperformed prior play. In these threatening lines Richard predicts bloody conflict in England stemming from Henry Bolingbroke's seizing of the throne, which was dramatized in Richard II. As the former Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, Edward Gero mulls over Richard's scary prediction with his back to the audience, facing an enormous sketch of England which will form the screen backdrop for the two plays. The remembered words echo in his mind, in some chamber too deep for soliloquy. Then the king turns, his armed noblemen enter, and the ensuing brisk dialogue immediately demonstrates that Richard's prophecy has come to pass. The state's embroiled in civil war, and its guilty cause is signaled by the bloody scarlet of King Henry's robe's trim, the only splash of color in a sea of grey and black costumes.

Terse (at least for Shakespeare) and brooding, Gero conveys the guilt-plagued aspect of the careworn King Henry IV, one of Shakespeare's finest tragic characters, though one who competes for audience sympathy with the boisterous warrior Hotspur (John Keabler), the chameleonlike Prince Hal (Matthew Amendt), and that inimitable comic spirit, Hal's companion, Sir John Falstaff (Stacy Keach). To my surprise, this audience laughed at angry King Henry's early expressed wish that "it could be proved / That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged / In cradle clothes [his and Northumberland's] children where they lay," replacing the valiant rebel Hotspur, the "theme of honor's tongue," with heir-apparent Prince Hal, who plays word-games in taverns. Backstage, Gero confirmed that this audience "laugh of recognition" comes at every performance, which means I've been seeing Shakespeare alongside younger, childless crowds. After all, what parent has never envied some other parent's perfectly behaved children?

In fact, these plays' appeal is their skillful combining of compelling political history with the universal domestic theme of fathers' and sons' fruitless longing to be free of one another -- and their ultimate need to affirm their bond. Midway through the first play, Gero's face shows only skepticism while his son promises that he'll shape up, do his duty, and "be more [him]self," but when Hal painfully shouts, "I am your son!," the king's face changes. He shows first surprise, then the dawn of wary hope, as he turns to look at Hal for the first time in the scene. Hal has yet to prove his promise, which he does on the Shrewsbury battlefield, saving his father's life, only to incur more paternal disappointment when, in the second play, he slips back into old habits of decadence and tomfoolery. He hence earns the great harangue of the dying Henry IV -- one of the more humorless of Shakespeare's dark characters, but blessed with a bitterly sarcastic wit. From his sickroom, Henry comes up with his own Richard-like prediction, thinking he foresees England slipping into chaos under his son's reign. "Then get thee gone and dig my grave thyself," he snarls at Hal. Then the "scum" of the realm may flock to the court, and the country become "a wilderness again, peopled with wolves, [its] old inhabitants." Gero delivers this strong speech lying down, a challenge for an actor, who must convey the sense that this last burst of angry, deathbed energy is made possible by the king's despair. Backstage, Gero claimed it was easy -- "Take a nap, give a speech" -- but I know it's not.

Prince Hal, of course, exists "to frustrate prophecies," as he's let us know from the start. He's planning a stunning reformation, which will only be seen in Henry V, the final play in this four-play section of the eight-part megacycle. Tragically, his father won't be audience to Hal's royal triumph, and has to take it on faith that Hal will enact his master plan. That plan, in its reliance on rhetoric, showmanship, and a contrived public image, is more like his father's royal "act" than Henry IV knows. In this, their last scene together, there's a chilling moment when the king, once more pacified by his son's skillfully made excuses, advises Hal to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" once he's crowned: that is, to distract the English nobles from their family's questionable royal right by starting a foreign war. When Gero says this, Matthew Amendt's Prince Hal looks at him first in shock, then with resigned understanding. This -- Shakespeare's time period, if not Hal's -- is the Machiavellian era. This is how the game is played.

This production is rich in facial subtleties like that described above, and none performs them better than Stacy Keach, a glorious, understated Falstaff. Falstaff is in fact the "night-tripping fairy" who, from one perspective, has stolen Hal from his royal duties. He's a great elf, who whimsically calls himself "one of Diana's foresters" and "minions of the moon," since he sneaks around at night and robs travelers. He's a sixty-year-old knight who imagines he's "in the vanguard of youth," though his slow gait and physical frailties give that claim the lie. Keach (padded with pillows and augmented by an inexplicable false nose) masterfully conveys Falstaff's limited physical energy with a tottering walk and with numerous slow descents to and ascents from sitting position, aided by a walking staff. His Falstaff is imperturbable, boredly waiting out his comic antagonists' tavern taunts and gibes, then slaying his cronies with deadpan comebacks, mentally concocted while the jokesters raved on. He's a master of timing, in this play about time -- about the pressures of historical time, the weight of time past, the fear of times to come, and the tragedy of bad timing on the Shrewsbury battlefield, whereby impatient Hotspur attacks the king before his own forces are ready, and loses. Keach's droll Falstaff can't be caught out and can't, it seems, die. He collapses on the battlefield from what looks like a heart attack, is mourned by Prince Hal, then, once alone on stage, rises slowly to his feet and makes more jokes. Of course he wasn't dead. Even in the play's final scene, when the suddenly reformed Hal, newly crowned, shockingly and painfully rejects him, can we really be sure Falstaff's wrong when he says, "I shall be sent for in private to him. Look you, he must seem thus to the world" -- ? Keach's deflation in this final moment, his loss of aplomb, sorts with Kahn's decision to add, at the end, a wordless scene wherein Falstaff and his lowlife friends are marched off to prison in sight of King Hal, who watches in splendid isolation from a balcony, as alone as his father was. But in the 1590s, when these plays were first produced, Shakespeare's playgoers had reason to expect more Hal-and-Falstaff hijinks ("in private") in the next play, Henry V. The Henry IV plays suggest that royal dignity is, after all, just role-play, and funny Falstaff was a huge audience draw, so why not? It might have been only the sudden departure from the company of the clown Will Kempe that led Shakespeare to omit Falstaff (whom Kempe very likely played) from the final play of the sequence.

Yet Kahn hasn't simplified these complex plays by turning them into tragedy. Throughout, he takes full advantage of their weird combination of tragic history and irrepressible comedy, as in one strange scene wherein Keach's Falstaff, standing with other soldiers at the king's battlefield camp, interrupts Henry IV's serious speech with a jest. He's quickly shushed by Amendt's Hal as Gero's Henry does a slow, incredulous take, glancing over at this Falstaff clown who exists in no historical chronicle and was simply invented by Shakespeare. It's as though Groucho Marx had wandered into the Union camp just prior to the Battle of Gettysburg and started practicing one-liners. How the hell did he get here?  The audience's reaction is similar to Henry's when, at the opening of part 2, they're greeted with a hilarious interpretation of the allegorical character Rumor: a man clad in a modern suit and tie and holding a -- well, no spoilers. You'll have to see the play.

The Henry IV plays are full of such incongruities. This production not only underscores, with its shackled Falstaff, the pathos of the comic knight's public rejection by Hal, it dignifies the dubious rebels, allowing them to wave the English flag of St. George (!) while King Henry's side is stuck with a heavy, ornate royal crest for a banner. Such props are well deployed. The crown is ever-present  -- Gero's Henry IV even wears a modified crown-helmet into battle -- as it should be, in a play where it symbolizes the weary weight of power. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," Henry laments, in private. Other complexities? John Keabler's Hotspur, the northern rebel, may be rash and uncontrollable, but he's funny, and more high-minded than the schemers who surround and exploit him. And furthermore Hotspur's the sexiest Shakespeare character, a fact emphasized in this production when a lean and shirtless Keabler appears in one scene, denouncing the nobles who won't rebel as lily-livered cowards. Even Bardolph, Falstaff's drunken follower, is granted some nuance by Brad Bellamy, who endures his tavern companions' endless mockery of his red face with ironic disgust. Oh, THAT's a good one, his expressions suggest. Never heard THAT before.

The Henry plays famously offer limited opportunities to women, but the five who appear in this cycle -- the tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Kate Skinner), the "whore" Doll Tearsheet (Maggie Kettering), Hotspur's mother Lady Northumberland (Julie  Brandeberry), Hotspur's wife Kate (Kelley Curran), and the Welsh wife of Lord Mortimer (Vanessa Sterling) -- perform admirably, particularly Kelley Curran when, in part 2, she eloquently berates her father-in-law for betraying son Hotspur at Shrewsbury, and staining his honor forever. Fathers and sons, again. Women's powerlessness, and the conspicuous absence of mothers, becomes a tragic theme.

Backstage after the performance, before heading out into the motorcycle night, I spoke in the Green Room to Ed Gero, a very nice guy who'd come to lunch with me and my students years before in Chicago. This was when he and Stacy Keach were appearing together there in King Lear (Gero as Gloucester, Keach as Lear). Keach was eating a salad right next to us. "Stacy, you know Grace, don't you?," Ed said, because I look like I hang with the Hollywood A-list. (That's a joke. In fact, I look like the kind of nerd who would correct your spelling of "theater," or get irritated at the actor playing Hotspur for not accentuating the "his" in his line about Hotspur's ambitious brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer, "who is, if every owner were well placed, indeed his king," meaning Mortimer is or should be Henry's king because Richard II designated Mortimer, not Henry, as his heir. Yes. I said I was nerdy.) Anyway, Keach was quite friendly, but I couldn't find the right words to tell him his Falstaff was even darkly funnier than the character he played in the recent film Nebraska, a malevolent small-town retiree who sings Elvis's "In the Ghetto" at the local karaoke bar. Since we saw Nebraska, my husband and I can easily crack each other up  by singing "In the ghetto . . ." Keach is a genius, and I hope to see him and the great Gero together again in another Shakespeare play. I hope it's a play in which their shared scenes exceed one all-too-brief one wherein -- two worlds colliding -- tragic history turns, unbelieving, to confront its comic face.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, I wish I could see this production! It sounds fantastic.