Rush Up Your Shakespeare 

Two companies bend gender with varying degrees of success.

You can't swing a sling in the summertime without hitting someone performing Shakespeare alfresco, but up in the hills around California Shakespeare Theater's outdoor stage you'd wind up hitting two plays with one stone. Henry IV is a homecoming of sorts for former artistic director Dakin Matthews (from back when it was the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival), whose Tony-winning adaptation of the two parts of Henry IV into a single play is directed here by newcomer Mladen Kiselov.

The play is staged in modern dress, in a sort of vague 1940s land of never-was, if for no other reason than to show off costumer Beaver Bauer's snazzy suits and a sprightly selection of vintage jazz. There's a nice running gag in which summiting leaders pause for photo ops before proceeding to brass tacks, but other modern touches seem gratuitous. Narelle Sissons' stylized set -- a huge metal silo that unfolds into a rusty industrial shell housing the opposing camps on opposite sides of the stage -- is striking, but it's unclear what it signifies.

This condensed version remains fairly comprehensible and engaging despite the fact that more than half of the text has been cut. The whos and whys of the historical conflict are sometimes confusing, and a few scenes and roles seem too short to be there at all.

Reg E. Cathey gives an irresistible performance as a sax-blowing, leather-clad Falstaff, more paunchy than fat and more sly than blustery. When he's cooking up one of his outrageous, face-saving boasts, he pauses with a conspiratorial smile, knowing that everyone knows he's lying, but knowing also that what he cooks up is going to be good. He rattles off his roguish philosophizing with such oratorical flair that he's in danger of converting the lot of us to a life of drunkenness and thievery. James Carpenter, who played Prince Hal when Berkeley Shakes staged the full Lancastrian Cycle (Richard II, both parts of Henry IV, and Henry V) back in 1987, here brings a smoldering, kingly fire of hard lessons learned to the elder, titular Henry, who's never been the real focus of the plays that bear his name. This is a story of intrigue and civil war, of the rage of Hotspur and the treachery of Worcester and sundry earls, but when all's said and done it's about how young Prince Harry the wastrel grows into his responsibilities as the man who would be King Henry V.

It's hard to imagine this particular production segueing into the next play because of Sean Dugan's performance as the young heir to the throne. Prince Henry usually is portrayed as a man meant for greater things, slumming and sowing his wild oats until destiny comes a-calling. Dugan takes the opposite tack, but is far too convincing as the debauched and callow whelp seriously in need of a smackdown for us to see the smallest seed of the great military commander we know he'll eventually become. When he appears in military uniform he looks like a messenger boy, and everything from his victory in battle to his assumption of rulership comes off as undeserved and unseemly. He is, when all's said and done, the George W. Bush of Henrys.

Graham Shiels brings an animated electricity to Hotspur, though his tantrums come off as more funny than fearsome, and he seems most in his element when he's mocking blustery Owen Glendower (Warren David Keith, who also plays the composite role of Warwick with dignified bureaucratic reserve). Stacy Ross imbues Hotspur's wife Lady Percy with confidence, strength, and playful sexuality, and also does double duty as the Lady Westmoreland, an earl in the original, here nicely portrayed as a brittle Beltway insider and berserker field officer. The similar transformation of Hal's brother John of Lancaster into Princess Joan (Lauren English) is surprisingly effective, less so in early scenes when she's just another face in the king's retinue than in later scenes of duplicitous diplomacy, where her Machiavellian machinations are all the more shocking because she strikes like a rattlesnake while appearing to be nothing more than a radiant, pretty princess.

Of course, women playing traditionally male Shakespearean roles is what the Woman's Will theater company is all about. All the roles were played by male actors in Shakespeare's day, so there's no earthly reason why they shouldn't all be played by women today. A gender-bending comedy such as As You Like It, with the favorite Shakespearean device of a woman dressing up as a man, would appear to be right up the company's alley. It's a shame, then, that the most convincing performances happen to be those of women playing women: especially artistic director Erin Merritt as the lovesick maiden Rosalind, disguised as a man for safety in exile and coaching her unsuspecting true love in how to court her. Jenny Debevec also charms as her girlish and long-suffering companion Celia, and Kendra Chell is quite funny as the bucolic bombshell Phebe.

Many of the female actors play men with overly husky voices and burly swagger -- that is to say, exactly as Rosalind's idea of manly behavior is often played. Here, though, her pretending to be a man is treated as though it were the most natural thing in the world. The problem is, not only doesn't she seem to have any particular difficulty with the guise, but her love Orlando seems unperturbed to be wooing a dude in his true love's place, and nobody seems even remotely surprised when the counterfeit is uncovered. Some of this is lack of nuance, some of it may be a philosophical choice, but it undermines the other performances because Merritt's Rosalind is more convincing as a man than some of the actors actually cast in male parts.

Rami Margron makes for a strapping young hero as Orlando when she's talking, conveying an easy masculinity without overdoing it, but she's a bit stiff when she doesn't have a line. In the key early scene when Orlando meets Rosalind and is too tongue-tied to talk to her, we only find out that he had any reaction to her when he curses himself afterward for his inaction, so when he's running around later pinning love poems to trees it seems altogether out of proportion to the interest he's shown up to that point.

Michele Beauvoir Shoshani is pretty limp as the melancholy Jaques, and it can be hard to tell the nobles from the courtiers because none are made to look older or more distinguished than the rest. It's only through the dialogue that we find that Orlando's faithful servant Adam (Debórah Ben-Eliezer) is very old and frail and hasn't simply eaten some bad shrimp. Jennifer Erdmann plays the fool Touchstone with more amiable goofiness than rapier wit, which loses her the upper hand in debate with a shepherd (Sandra Jardin) but wins the production a great deal of conspiratorial goodwill.

There's a lot demanded of the language here to convey the plot and the humor, so it helps that the actors' diction is very good overall, although they struggle with British accents because they've set the play in 1960s England and made the outcasts of Arden a band of flower people (with groovy costumes by Amy Nielson). The setting seems arbitrary, but gives an excuse for hippie-hippie-shake dance numbers that are so sublimely silly as to make you frug off the whole question of suspension of disbelief and join in the fun.

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