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Men, women mix it up in compelling 'Henry IV'

Bill Blando of Patriot-News

After the mostly silent page beseeches the audience to hear his speech and see his curtsy at the end of Sunday's performance of Shakespeare's "Henry IV" and suggests that is might be "a displeasing play," another voice is heard with an equally simple and direct plea: "If you enjoyed this show, please tell your friends. We have some reservations, but not enough."

The request is a fair one. It's hardly a displeasing production -- long, yes; displeasing, no.

The voice belonged to J. Clark Nicholson, who not only directed this 20th production of the Harrisburg Shakespeare Festival but also served as half of the team that consolidated parts I and II of "Henry IV."

It's a shame that the unusually cast show doesn't seem to be generating larger audiences. But the hope is that his request will ignite a rush to the box office of the Gamut Classic Theatre on the third floor of Strawberry Square. Because of the energy of a large and talented cast, it's more than worthy of consideration by area theater lovers. Shakespeare fans will get more than their money's worth as the program runs 31/2 hours, including intermission.

In addition to putting together the parts that Shakespeare wrote as separate plays in 1597 and 1598, Nicholson assigned women to play the four major male roles and many of the less prominent ones. In another gender reversal, he cast two men in female roles. It does make an audience sit up and take notice when they see Melissa Nicholson (the director's wife) sitting on the throne as the title character discussing the events of the day with male and female members of the court. They're all supposed to be men, of course; that's what the Bard had in mind.

Then, Amber E. Wagner shows up as the king's playboy son and heir apparent, Prince Hal, looking pert and pretty in short bob. And Karen Ruch, properly padded and blustery, appears to more than fill the role of Sir John Falstaff, the plump and aging knight who's been teaching Hal how to enjoy the raunchy things of life.

The fourth member of the key quartet is Melissa Dunphy, dark-haired, dark-eyed and full of anger. She plays the fiery Hotspur (Henry Percy) with an intensity and rage that make her a compelling figure to watch. Unfortunately, Hotspur is killed off in Act I, but fortunately, Dunphy, like 11 other members of the 15-member cast, has multiple roles. So she returns to the stage.

But whether the audience is prepared for the gender switch, it soon settles into a state of acceptance.

Robert Campbell, playing two totally different roles -- that of Mistress Quickly, who's losing her tavern to the deadbeat Falstaff, and Douglas, a wild warrior -- deserves special mention. So do Alexis Dow, playing Hal's pal, Poins, and two other parts; a red-haired Brian Hoover, playing Lady Percy, Pistol and an archbishop; and Nicole Borreli-Martinez as a sullen Bardolph with raspy voice and the Earl of Westmoreland. The cast is rounded out by Sean Adams, Janet Bixler, David Chromiak, Nick Hughes, Jennie Kelly and Jacquie Williams. They're all effective.

Also making a significant contribution is fight choreographer Dan Burke, who enables the clanging of the swords to go off smoothly and loudly without anyone getting really hurt. Mike Banks provides appropriate music and sound, Karen Gasser's lighting and Steve Krempasky's scenery work well, while Jennifer Kilander's costumes fit the characters quite nicely, with all dressed in period wear without the mix of past and present styles.

In the program note, director Nicholson explains his reason for combining the two plays this way: "... though they are subtly different in tone, they are two parts of a whole. As such, they should be seen relatively concurrently." He explained after the performance that it took many, many hours of editing and reconstruction, and before the fifth and final run-through, he and his co-editor, Sherman Hawkins, a retired professor and Shakespeare scholar who plays two male roles, still found themselves with a five-hour play.

And why did he want women to fill most of the male roles? Because, he explained, in Shakespeare's day women were banned from acting and female roles were played by men. Thus the Bard created mostly male roles. And in casting various plays for the festival, Nicholson said, it disturbed him that so many fine women actors couldn't be cast. That ended, at least, with this show. He cast the various roles from the pool of actors who he thought could best fill each part, gender be damned.

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