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So Much Theatre: Hal and Falstaff

By Brian Carroll on September 6, 2013

Review by Brian M. Carroll
175 minutes (including one intermission) | Historical Drama | G

Like Shel Silverstein’s poem Hamlet as Told on the Streets, the Company of Fools’ street smart production of Hal and Falstaff is aimed at the rabble: the types of folks who paid a penny to stand in the pit of the original Globe Theatre. Director Margo MacDonald has her actors in lower-class roles gesturing like punks and squatters, while costume designer Vanessa Imeson outfitted them in boots, slashed clothes, studs, pins, tattoos and hair cuts to match. Appropriate accessories transform actors into the upper classes.

People tend to think of the Company of Fools as being good at comic interpretations of Shakespeare (they are). But when the Fools want, they can play his work straight. And much of this historical drama (both parts of Henry IV abridged, a snippet of Richard II and a taste of Henry V) is played just that way.

At first I found it unnerving to see Katie Ryerson playing Hal. (She played Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor.) However, I’ve always had trouble suspending disbelief when actors who play Hal, “the prince your master, whose chin is not yet fledged”, obviously have a five o’clock shadow. Just as boys played women in Shakespeare’s time, so Ryerson successfully plays the teenaged Hal. Her beardless face emphasizes the huge challenge young Hal must overcome to be heir to the crown in a time of rebellion and civil war. Hal must grow up quickly to face his rival Hotspur (Henry Percy) on the battlefield.

While I enjoyed Matthew John Lundvall’s Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, he really shines here. Yes, this Falstaff is a clown, a womanizer and a coward. But, as evidenced in his fight with Pistol, he’s definitely familiar with sword, dagger and the battlefield. He’ll use weapons when he has to. And his wit is as sharp as Hal’s rapier. He provides much of the satire and comic relief of the plays. His is a Falstaff that Queen Elizabeth I would have loved.

Nor does all the comedy fall on Falstaff’s vast corpus. MacDonald drops in scenes of typical Fools’ sendup to balance the drama. Of special note is the farcical interpretation of the Archbishop of York (Simon Bradshaw) and Hastings (Geoff McBride).

As well as Ryerson and Lundvall, the rest of the cast is strong and well balanced. They cover 27+ roles between them. While I don’t want to single out particular performers, I do think certain roles bear special mention.

I expected Geoff McBride to provide comic relief. In this case, his cross-dressed Hostess and silly Hastings had the audience giggling. His Glendower is over the top. He not only chews up the scenery, but also the ceiling. (As a result, I finally understand Glendower’s obsession with omens.) But what really impressed me was his Henry IV. He’s definitely regal, though by force and not by birth. Oh my!

Having seen Melanie Karen in Hip Hop Shakespeare: Live Music Videos, I expected her to ably carry male roles. Her Prince John takes the stage with princely bearing. But her Douglas has superb bluster and swagger. And her Doll Tearsheet is a sultry and hot babe.

Simon Bradshaw’s Archbishop of York is a silly match for McBride’s Hastings, but it his Ned Poins who “rides the wild mare with the boys” that brings insight to Poins’ friendship with Hal.

John Doucet’s Hotspur is a fierce rival to Hal, war-hardened and battle-ready. And his Lord Chief Justice is a tough and competent rival to the lawless Falstaff.

If I had teenage relatives in town I’d take them to see this Hal and Falstaff and discuss it with them after. Not that It’s an easy production. MacDonald doesn’t spoon feed the audience. Some twenty somethings after the show admitted that they followed about 60%. But they found it easier to follow as the play continued. They stuck around afterwards happily discussing the production.

Pay attention to the map when the rebels divide up the country they’ve not yet won. It helped me keep straight the division of the rebels (and the corresponding division of Henry IV’s forces).

Take advantage of the intermission to stretch your legs. At just under 3 hours you’ll need it. But the Fools kept the pace moving (barring a few verbal stumbles). My knees and bum didn’t complain about the tight Gladstone seating, because…

I was completely absorbed.

Hal and Falstaff by The Company of Fools is playing at The Gladstone Theatre September 3-8; at Shenkman Richcraft Studio September 10-15; and at Centrepointe Studio September 17-22. 7:30PM Tuesday-Saturday. 2:30pm Matinee Saturday and Sunday. Pay what you can. Suggested donation $15.