“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” -Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part Two
Theatre Coup d’Etat propels theater to the basics with total reliance on actors, words and action in an open basement space in the Calvary Baptist Church. There the troupe tells one whale of an epic story through the power of individual human artists in our day overwrought with high-tech confusion. The play, though not a religious one, is nonetheless definitely set in what was once called ‘Christendom’ and certainly has spiritual dimensions. Rogue Prince, an adaptation of two Shakespearean English History plays deftly adapted by Gary Briggle, still lovingly faithful to it’s source, cuts the fat of originals and runs at two absorbing, exciting hours totally true to the core intentions of the source.
That source material, tapped directly from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, has much to say about the passage of hedonistic youth to the choice to step up to the plate of ruling a kingdom and gaining mastery of one’s self or not. You don’t have to be of royal blood or a rich kid to understand the problem these plays present. Briggle’s adaptation concisely elucidates those themes without gutting the original material and what’s equally astute is Briggle’s apprehension of the originals’ mix of raw comedy, some of which is low comedy addressing the raunchy side of life, and high drama of poetic language and deep psychology.
Briggle has co-directed the piece with Wendy Lehr. They have clearly recognized and co-guided the manifestation of Rogue Prince’s splendid balance between high and low. Devotees of the Henry plays are likely familiar with Orson Welles’ film adaptation of the Henry IV pair, the marvelous Chimes at Midnight from the mid-1960s. Better yet, Briggle’s adaptation is pleasingly more coherent.
What sets the modest Coup d’Etat production apart from so many other modest Shakespeare stagings, where most of the actors crisply play quite a few characters at a brisk pace, is that the soul of the play also reverberates from underneath throughout. So often you just get the first two. Here you get all three. Each and every one of the several scenes is played out in the fullness you’d see in a strong big production of both plays.
This is rooted in veteran co-directors Briggle and Lehr’s vast experience with classical music and theater. That background was absorbed by the co-directors decades ago and has deepened within their consciousness since then. This is an example of classical artistic maturity that has long nurtured insight on historical realities and truths. In this case, it’s the problem of how the mighty in royal seats of power must sacrifice the personal if they are to protect and serve their subjects. This is part and parcel of being the proverbial Good King, something the Bard of Avon was of a mind about right through to the marrow of his bones. Theater artists called to do this sort of theater must have an apprehension of the historical, which the Coup d’Etat directorial elders obviously have and have infused among the production’s numerous younger players.
It is sacrifice of childish things, so to speak, that Henry IV, the father of rogue prince Hal, sees detrimentally lacking in his heir and son. Hal, set to inherit the anguished and ailing father’s crown upon his impending death, is utterly out of the loop at how dire the situation is. The kingdom absolutely must have powerhouse leadership and military know-how in order to survive. For the moment, Prince Hal only seems to manifest the destructiveness of self-indulgence.
Bruce Bohne gives one of the richest performances of his outstanding career. You probably saw him play Officer Lou alongside Frances MacDormand’s Oscar-winning turn as Brainerd police chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo. Fans of that tremendously popular film will only be all the more impressed by Bohne’s moving performance in Rogue Prince. He evokes a poignant sense of crusty desperation coursing through the veins of a great man on his way out. Agonized doubts about his son are crushing him. We wonder if that psychic agony is actually accelerating his countdown to death. Therefore, at the 11th hour, a king is dying in horror that his realm will be conquered because of own spawn’s incapacity for responsibility. At one point, Henry muses that his enemy’s son’s qualities would have served him better than his own son’s.
Writer Briggle also plays the two originals’ most legendary role, Falstaff, in a great comedic performance as an aging man who revels fecklessly in vices of drink, easy sex, and theft with fellow merrymakers. There’s no fool like an old fool. The audience is swept saucily along with Briggle’s portrayal of the ripened knight’s caution-to-the-wind lifestyle. Simultaneously, he elicits a burgeoning awareness roiling beneath the character’s surface. It’s dawning on Falstaff that he’s decades too old to still be behaving like an unruly adolescent and that the clock cannot be turned back. Briggle’s performance steadily intuits that the vices, gluttony, and compulsive behaviors which have come to comprise his personality and identity have come home to roost.
In turn, Hal steadily recognizes his old pal’s devious nature, and like so many young men, must choose to go to hell in a hand basket with him or take charge of his life. Though the setting is circa 1400, it resonates presciently with Minneapolis today and it’s continual influx of young men on the street and in rehab with opioid habits that so many just can’t seem to quit.
James Napoleon Stone’s superb lead performance as Hal underscores one the true virtues of Briggle’s adaptation—the unfolding of the consciousness that Falstaff is a black hole and remaining the senior man’s pal is the road to personal, and by extension, political destruction. With sharp and swift reactions through his eyes, tone, and body language, Stone slices intensely through the morass of “just havin’ a good time” with moments of urgent realization. These are sudden numinous instances where Hal is struck by Falstaff’s crafty ways of undermining him.
In the two original Shakespeare plays, such moments are too often absorbed into the unwieldy, though entertaining essence of the pair. Briggle the adapter and Stone the actor cut through that and shine through with the essence which Shakespeare intended at the core. It is probable that in the whirlwinds of Renaissance English theater, there was only so much time for re-writes. The monumental dramatist was under heavy pressure through out his prolific career as a theater artist in a turbulently threatening time in history.
The acting ensemble captures the early 15th century with a raw and rude earthiness in the tavern scenes. In the intimate basement performance space, the audience sits right up to the stage action and is made to feel like they’re in on the debauchery—complicit with insults about Falstaff’s obesity, as well as the man’s amoral-immoral attitudes.
Stately, somber, and stern, are the scenes in the dying king’s castle. Lehr has guided the actors to embody that dimension with smoothly natural, yet heightened ease rather than a forced look of self-importance that other period play productions are known to slip into. Lehr herself is an actress with a brilliant record of heightened yet palpably human portrayals in classic plays, such as her memorable work in Jungle Theater’s The Glass Menagerie and The Heiress; and performances in Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas and Romeo and Juliet at Children’s Theatre in last century. This sensibility has been infused ineffably into the entire Rogue Prince cast. How lucky they are to have worked with Lehr.
Those with multiple roles make clear distinctions between them with some crackerjack standouts. Ben Shaw beguiles with mercurial machismo as Hal’s young rival, Harry Percy. Meg Bradley brings wiliness shrewdly contrasted with rustic warmth to Dame Quickly, the innkeeper and liquor seller whose Eastcheap location is the Shenanigans Central. Her place in the society brings to mind the problem of guilt by association with those wrongdoers who frequent her establishment. The setting, two centuries after the paradigm-shifting Magna Carta, and Shakespeare’s own modern sensibility, remind us that we need to be careful in stigmatizing those who have good relations with people we disapprove of and have limited, if any, control over. Dame Quickly does what she has to do to survive and to provide others access to some kind of income and pleasure. It’s easy to judge against her. Bradley shows her humanity.
Kaylyn Forkey’s Pistol lives perfectly into the namesake in a dazzling performance that flickers with reactionary volatility. A winning Damian Leverett contrasts vividly between Hal’s dutiful brother, Prince John and his cocky bad influence buddy, Poins. Elegant Anna Leverett does the same as she brings dignified strength to Lady Percy and raw strength to the tavern’s exploited Doll Tearsheet, whose name says it all. The versatile Kjer Whiting is wonderful in roles written for men higher than average on the power chain. Corey de Danann is terrific in four different roles. Don Maloney is right on target as Bardolph, a man believed to be based on a man from a noble family who let decadence get the best of him.
Rogue Prince is filled with several crossgender performances. It’s an exhilarating roller-coaster ride in which every performance is immediately dynamic and yet historically etched. In other words, we are transported to an exciting past of 600 years ago. Not to be missed.
Note: Adam Scarpello’s fight direction is very effective but be aware that sword play is done very close to the audience.
Through Oct. 26
Calvary Baptist Church, 2608 Blaisdell Ave. S., Minneapolis