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The Rousuck Review: "Henry IV, Part One"

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Will Kirk
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It certainly sounds strange: An all-female production of “Henry IV, Part One” – a Shakespeare history play in which almost all of the characters are men.

But there’s precedent – a lot of it. There are all-female Shakespeare companies from New York to Los Angeles to London. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899. So did Eva Le Gallienne in the 1930s. More recently, Helen Mirren starred as Prospero in the 2010 film of “The Tempest.” And Center Stage will produce an all-female “As You Like It” in January.

Casting all women is just the flip side of what went on in Shakespeare’s day, when all roles, by law, were played by men. In a program note for the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s current production of “Henry IV, Part One,” director Tom Delise offers another justification: Historically, female political leaders are nothing new. I’d add that this particularly resonates now, when a woman is the Democratic front-runner for the United States presidency.

Director Delise changes the gender of his cast, but not Shakespeare’s characters. The pronouns are unaltered, and the male characters portrayed as men -- in trousers or tights. But while the body language is generally masculine, the voices remain feminine.

“Henry IV, Part One” is the coming-of-age story of Prince Hal, who later becomes King Henry V. Hal’s path to adulthood is guided by two father figures. Hal’s birth father, stern Henry IV, represents leadership. Hal’s surrogate father – portly, profligate Sir John Falstaff -- represents hedonism.

Falstaff is larger-than-life in every sense. Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom insists Falstaff is matched in magnitude only by Hamlet. So a winning portrayal of Falstaff -- by a man or woman -- is crucial.

Kay-Megan Washington delivers that winning portrayal. She is the familiar belly-scratching, tall-tale-telling, wine-swilling Falstaff. But her warm, almost musical speech imbues every word with the love and friendship Falstaff feels for Prince Hal.

Meanwhile, Ann Turiano’s nuanced depiction of Hal shows him preparing to leave the carousing friends of his youth and accept the duties – many on the battlefield – of the crown.

The battlefield scenes, however, tend to be awkward, and the supporting performances, uneven. Static blocking is another problem.

The principle character in a scene is often posed center stage, with the other characters on the periphery. If there are four others, they stand in four corners, face inward, and, at times, speak with their backs to some of the audience.

These difficulties, however, have nothing to do with cross-gender casting. Occasionally, you even forget you’re watching women in men’s roles.

If anything, the all-female casting brings new pertinence to a 400-year-old history play. That pertinence concerns more than politics. The production comes at a time when women are receiving more attention in theater.

Baltimore’s ParityFest is part of a national initiative focused on female playwrights. And another local company, Glass Mind Theatre, has just opened an original, female-driven adaptation of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” Titled “The Pretties,” the adaptation is by Ann Turiano -- yes, the same person playing Prince Hal for the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory.

So the time seems right for director Tom Delise’s take on “Henry IV, Part One.” There are some theories, in fact, that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a woman. I wouldn’t go that far, but it is refreshing to see women on the throne, instead of just serving as the power behind it.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years. Her feature coverage for The Sun included a comprehensive series chronicling the development of the Tony Award-winning musical, “Hairspray.” Judy got her start at The Cleveland Press and at Cleveland’s fine arts radio station, WCLV. Her broadcasting experience also includes a year as an on-air theater critic for Maryland Public Television.