Pigeon Creek takes playful stab at the Henry plays
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Before the show begins, Kathleen Bode, the actress playing Bardolph, is joined on stage by Kat Hermes, the actress playing the ghost of Richard II.
Both performers, familiar to Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company audiences, introduce the original practices of the company and perform the curtain speech. More importantly, as Hermes moans about Henry IV usurping not only her throne, but her very play, they give the audience permission to laugh.
Yes, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 is a history, one of a collection of William Shakespeare’s non-fiction plays written to delight his contemporary audiences and flatter the woman on the throne. But in the hands of Pigeon Creek, it is far from stale or heavy. Populated with such characters as Sir John Falstaff and his band of ne’er do wells, Henry IV is filled with comic potential and the company makes the most of those moments.
And the ghost needn’t have worried. The king who usurped his throne is almost an after-thought in the plays that bear his name. They are far more the story of his son, Prince Hal, the prince who would go on to become Henry V, the king who nearly conquered France in the famous battle of Agincourt.
This script adaptation—the one that combined two plays into one and shortened it to two hours and 45 minutes—was done by Paul Riopelle with Katherine Mayberry and it is Riopelle who plays the part of the young Prince Hal.
We see in Prince Hal echoes of Richard II (which Pigeon Creek performed in December of 2015 with Hermes then playing the young king which she reprises as a ghost in this version). Even his father, King Henry IV, played by Scott Lange, bemoans how similar the two are, both being heavily influenced by common ruffians who lead their royal companion into very unroyal mischief.
Riopelle performs a very nuanced Hal. We see in him the party boy who drinks and plays at the tavern and gets himself caught up in hijinks that are very unprincely. And yet, Riopelle also projects early on the arc this prince will travel. In the subtext, he gives us moments that show Hal will grow up in ways that Richard II never did.
It is an adaptation that plays to Riopelle’s strengths. He handles the monologues deftly and the verbal sparring between him and Scott Wright’s Falstaff are highlights of the show. The two give each other so much to work with and play it to the hilt. Riopelle owns the stage when he is upon it both as the rapscallion and later as the growing war hero and the repentant son. We see in his face and in his submissive body movements the change that takes place and the blossoming of the man who was always in hiding.
Wright is delightful as Falstaff, letting this larger-than-life character blossom on stage. He shows us why this character was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth—so much so that she demanded a play with him in it even after Shakespeare had killed him off. He is a montebank with no hope of conversion. He is a braggart, a drunkard and a man with thought for nothing but his own pleasures.
Wright owns the stage when he is on it, no small task given that he shares it with Riopelle. He moans. He complains. He schemes. He also lies with such fervor and commitment that he tickles the audience. Wright ensures that Falstaff is unrepentant in his every misdeed, always coming up with a justification or an explanation of how his actions or words weren’t really what they seemed like to those who heard them.
Leaving the tavern, there are wars brewing across the land, a rebellion sparked by Henry Percy, known as Hotspur and played by Chaz Bratton. He achieves the glory that Henry IV wishes his son would achieve, and is thus the target of the king’s envy and demands. Instead, he rebels and Bratton gives us the fury and heat of a hotheaded young man who is denied what he sees as his due. His anger is given even greater emphasis as Michael Dodge’s Earl of Northumberland and Eric Orive’s Earl of Worcester patiently attend it and try to intercede to direct his actions. It is a threesome that interacts well and makes the political powerful.
While relegated to the footnotes of the show, Lange does have some powerful moments as Henry IV. The first comes in the very beginning of the show when he blows a dog whistle saying he wishes someone would be his “friend” and take care of the problem of the captive Richard II. Worcester rightly hears that as a call to commit regicide, even though the king leaves in enough deniability to claim that wasn’t what he meant and let the shame of the act fall fully upon Worcester. And yet, in this tautly played scene, with the two actors circling and repeating each other, there is no doubt left where the blame lies.
It is not the last time in this show when the audience is left to wonder if Shakespeare foresaw the coming of Candidate Donald Trump.
Lange, playing the king who was triumphant in Richard II, carries heavily the burdens of the monarchy and fatherhood. He rebukes his son with heavy words – words that are effective in bringing his son around to his responsibilities. The adaptation of this script will eventually come full circle with Lange alone on stage with Riopelle—the father and son passing the monarchy through inheritance rather than through murder and usurpation.
All of the ensemble is tightly directed by Dennis Henry, and he brings out the best in each of his performers. Each actor—sometimes playing multiple roles—bring an elevated energy to the production. He keeps them moving about the small thrust stage, playing to all sides of the audience and making scene transitions run smoothly and with no hesitations.
This is a troupe of actors who don’t hesitate to interact with their audiences and they all bring a confidence that lets them make powerful eye contact with their spectators, and drawn them deep into the play. As is common with Pigeon Creek productions, they sometimes sit in the audience, borrow props from unsuspecting viewers and address them directly and specifically.
Matt McKay was in charge of fight choreography and he had a Herculean task from the ambushing of travelers to the battlefields of Shrewsbury. He makes the combats tight—as the space dictates—while building suspense and telling the necessary story.
In addition to his role as the reigning king, Lange is in charge of music—which for Pigeon Creek means the performance of songs before the show and at the end of intermission. These are performances of modern songs that help to tell the centuries-old story. In this production, it includes the warring performances of a royal, acapella chant and the uproarious tavern song of the common folk. At intermission, the defeated Hotspur and Douglas (played with a delightful Scottish accent by Chaz Albright) rap with an energy befitting their warlike characters. The next song foreshadows the second and the aging of Falstaff and the king, and the different directions their relationship with Hal will take.
Despite the popularity of Falstaff, Henry IV, parts 1 and 2” (or even the Henrys performed separately)are rarely done and Pigeon Creek imbues it with energetic fun while doing justice to the powerful, serious scenes. It is well worth the trip to Grand Rapids to see this history play out in the hands of a very capable and very playful ensemble.