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Bard's tragedy, comedy perfectly blended

Streamlined Shakespeare focuses on timeless coming-of-age story

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Falstaff, where is thy fat suit?

Sir John Falstaff, the corpulent braggart who is one of the best-loved rascals in stage history, has shed most of his fake flab.

Last summer, when Shakespeare in the Ruins staged a riotous version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, actor David Warburton had a padded waistline to merit the Bard's countless jokes about Falstaff's gluttony and girth.

Warburton is back in SIR's tent at Assiniboine Park in Henry IV Parts I and II, but the recurring character of Falstaff is now a trim fellow with only a small padded paunch.

It's a shame, because the fat jokes hardly make sense, and Falstaff looks much less ridiculous than he might when he goes into battle and proves himself a king-sized coward. The shameless opportunist and wimp, who utters the line "The better part of valour is discretion," even picks up a famed warrior's corpse off the battlefield and claims to have slain it himself.

Fortunately, the British-born Warburton is such a comic pro, he still earns belly laughs as the silver-tongued old liar who uses quick wit to worm out of every scrape.

The two-part Henry IV, a perfectly balanced blend of comedy and tragedy, is seldom performed these days as two separate plays. Under the skilful editing pen of ensemble member Sarah Constible, the combined works have lost even more flab than Falstaff. Vast numbers of characters have been dropped and the tale streamlined to focus on the coming of age of Prince Hal, the prodigal heir of aging King Henry IV.

The nine-actor show runs about two-and-a-half hours, including intermission. Though designer Grant Guy's hanging banners have a children's-theatre flavour, the rough-hewn furniture and medieval costumes -- tights, tunics, royal robes -- are mostly first-rate.

Viewers will find it a challenge to follow the political scheming, but it's kept to a minimum. Director Chris Sigurdson never lets the action bog down, delivering bawdy barroom shenanigans, gross-out humour, expertly staged swordfights and funny supporting characters.

Kevin Klassen, who knows how to fill the tent with his voice, is a hoot as the ancient Shallow, who's always reliving his randy youth. Constible and Michelle Boulet animate the barmaid and hooker with feisty energy.

Tobias Hughes, a 26-year-old in his SIR debut, gives an intelligent, highly sympathetic portrayal of Prince Hal (often called Harry), a 15th-century party boy who initially disgusts his father by lolling around in taverns with his degenerate older buddy Falstaff, avoiding royal responsibility.

The careworn king (Kevin Anderson, whose poor voice projection weakens his performance) is facing a rebel uprising. It's led by a contrasting Harry: a bold, bloodthirsty youth, aptly nicknamed Hotspur (Brock Couch, who has a virile, "drunk with choler" presence and acquits himself well, except in his rather stilted death speech).

Prince Hal is faced with having to man up, mend his ways, earn his father's respect and shoulder his royal role. The comic highlight is the famous scene in which he and Falstaff role-play a scolding encounter between father and son, trading clever insults. By story's end, occupying the throne is no game for Hal, and the hilarious scene is brilliantly echoed in a dead-serious final encounter with his old chum.

In the past, SIR has often led the audience outside for open-air scenes. Henry IV is entirely presented on a stage inside the tent, which has been relocated to a parking lot. The sightlines are fine, except during brief scenes in which the actors step off the stage and some viewers have to stare into low-positioned lights.

While there might not be grass underfoot, two sides of the tent are kept open. As darkness falls and wind rustles in the trees, a kind of time-travelling magic transports the viewer back through the centuries.

The production's wonderful use of medieval-style music, mostly made by the actors on drums, recorder, mandolin and melodica, helps to weave that spell. And when king and prince have their deathbed farewell, Shakespeare's genius makes it a universal parent-child moment, as poignant now as it was 400 years ago.


Theatre Review

Henry IV Parts I & II

Shakespeare in the Ruins

To June 25 in Assiniboine Park

Tickets $12 to $30 at PTE box office or 942-5483

Four stars out of five

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2011 G3

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