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Merry Time

Oregon fest puts together superb year for Shakespeare lovers

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Unlike Julius Caesar, which generally plays like a tragedy, Henry IV has gradually lost much of the love Elizabethans felt for the two-part piece. If it is performed today at all, it is for the benefit of Shakespeare completists, and because the twin plays feature the beloved character of Sir John Falstaff. Ironically, given that he first appeared in a pair of "histories," the corpulent scoundrel is entirely fictional. (Rumor has it, by the way, that it was per Queen Elizabeth's request that Shakespeare spun Falstaff off into the wholly inventive Merry Wives of Windsor, which OSF will be staging later this summer.)

Till then, in a vivid, energetic, and cleverly contemporary production, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Henry IV, Part One (running through Oct. 28) is giving audiences a strong dose of what made people fall in love with Falstaff 400 years ago. Though only a supporting character, his mighty shadow looms large within the Thomas Theatre, reconfigured as theater-in-the-round. The play begins a year after King Henry (Jeffrey King, all steely nerves) violently usurped the throne of Richard II, and had him killed. Henry's son, Hal (Daniel José Molina, first-rate), is a disappointment to his father, spending his time carousing at the Boar's Head Inn, which is ruled, after a fashion, by the hard-drinking reprobate Falstaff (G. Valmont Thomas, sensational) and his cadre of thieves, rascals and fallen women.

When King Henry's claim to the throne is suddenly challenged by a dangerous collective of foreign and outcast warriors on their way to England and hell-bent on splitting the island up between themselves, Hal finds himself torn between his two very different father figures, one bad but lovable, the other good (sort of) but hard as nails.

Director Blain-Cruz's vision is a bold one. The action is set on a simple set of gleaming metal poles, which flash in neon colors for the Boars Head scenes, underscoring the inn's depravity with an inflatable pool full of bubbles and scantily clad dancers with animal heads. The poles instantly represent columns, trees or tent poles whenever the action pivots to the throne room or to the riveting battlefield conferences of the crazy Welsh warlord Glendower (Lauren Modica, delightfully off-the-wall in a role usually played by men) and the fierce Hotspur (Alejandra Escalente, magnificent). The latter is yet another gender-switching casting choice, a decision that takes on remarkable resonance here, largely due to Escalente's uncanny understanding of the optimistic, single-minded zeal that makes Hotspur tick.

This is the kind of Shakespeare production in which swords are frequently replaced with guns and rifles, and during the inevitable battle scenes at the end, the noise (augmented by the distant sounds of helicopters and mortar fire) is intense. Beautifully balancing bloodshed is the occasional appearance of Falstaff, whose battlefield cowardice eventually borders on a kind of heroic and pragmatic, anti-war self-expression.

Though one or two favorite characters do not survive the first part of the play, audiences willing to drive to Ashland again in July are guaranteed to see a bit more of Falstaff when OSF unveils Henry IV, Part Two with the same cast continuing the story.

By then, of course, Merry Wives of Windsor will be playing on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, so Falstaff lovers will get a triple-dose of their favorite character—with a twist. In Wives, the famous fat-man will be played by OSF regular K. T. Vogt, which should be a hoot. She's hilarious!

Ironically, OSF's biggest hit of the spring is likely to be a show that is not by William Shakespeare but about him. Certain to delight audiences and fill the Bowmer with movie-loving theatergoers from now till October is the extravagantly entertaining Shakespeare in Love (now through Oct. 29), the American premiere of playwright Lee Hall's mostly successful—if perplexingly overlong—adaptation of the superb Oscar-winning movie from 1998.

The movie, co-authored by the great Tom Stoppard, played like a witty, mirthful, somewhat Mel Brooksian spoof of age-old theatrical conventions, joyfully disguised as an anachronistic mishmash of Elizabethan history and Shakespeare-centric fan fiction. The play is relatively faithful to the movie's plotline, though frequent liberties are taken, which seem unwise to quibble about given that the film took its own share of liberties with the life of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (William DeMeritt, all around excellent) is struggling with writer's block, having promised a new play—tentatively titled Romeo and Ethyl, the Pirate's Daughter—to Mr. Henslowe (a hilarious Brent Hinkley), owner of the struggling theater the Rose. Alternately goaded on by and in competition with rival playwright Kit Marlowe (Ted Deasy), Shakespeare finds unexpected inspiration after auditioning the spirited Thomas Kent, who, unbeknownst to him, is really the theater-loving Viola de Lesseps (a marvelous Jamie Ann Romero) in disguise, hoping for a chance as an actor despite it being illegal to put a woman onstage.

The primary deviations from the movie include Marlowe having much more to do. The script essentially turns him into Cyrano de Bergerac for the scene in which Shakespeare, smitten with Viola yet not guessing she's also Thomas Kent, woos her beneath her balcony, with Marlowe feeding him lines from the shadows. Later, Marlow appears again as a ghost to offer Shakespeare additional wisdom and advice.

Also somewhat expanded in size is the role of young John Webster (Preston Mead, pitch-perfect), the creepy, vengeful, blood-loving actor who figures out Viola's secret identity. What Mead does with his face, a mix of gothic leer and bug-eyed pout, is well worth the price of admission.

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Well-directed by Christopher Liam Moore, who has an eye for spectacle and a knack for staging broad physical comedy, the play is a frothy delight for most of its nearly three-hour running time (with one 15 minute intermission), but seriously bogs down, pace-wise, just when it should be turning up the mph as it races toward the climax. The stage version layers on additional stuff during the big Romeo and Juliet performance, and on opening weekend, the actors slowed down their pace, including interminable pauses between lines. One can only hope the pace will pick up as the cast grows more confident with the material, which is certainly not easy.

I should also add a few words about the live music, performed by a masterful trio of musicians (Michael Palzewicz on strings, Mark Eliot Jacobs on lute, hurdy gurdy and sackbut, and Austin Comfort on vocals). Onstage throughout, the musicians are as much a part of the show as the actors, and are occasionally spoken to, especially by Lord Wessex (Al Espinosa), Viola's would-be suitor, who keeps telling the musicians to shut up.

The cast is immense, with marvelous turns throughout—Kate Mulligan's Queen Elizabeth is superb—and the sprawling set (Rachel Hauck) and stunning costumes (Susan Tsu) are frequently dazzling. Slow-paced or not, aided by the familiarity of the movie version, this lovingly crafted bauble is certain to have audiences falling in love with Shakespeare in Love all over again.

For information on tickets and the full Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2017 season, visit osfashland.org.

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