Outdoor Shakespeare is a staple of summer theatre in New York City. But where Manhattan’s parks are rife with the Bard—most famously Central Park’s Delacourt Theater where the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park reigns year after year—the outer boroughs aren’t traditionally graced with the same attention.
Rebellious Subjects Theatre seeks to change that with their performances of Henry IV and V in Brooklyn’s own Prospect Park. It’s not an easy battle; after an opening weekend that went as planned, one of Rebellious Subjects’ performance dates was revoked due to an event that had been relocated to Prospect Park a few days before. In a show of devotion to their work, the company decided to do a marathon the following day, performing both shows nearly back-to-back. That kind of dedication to the proliferation of free public art should be applauded, and while their Henry IV (a compiled cutting of I and II) is far from perfect, it shows that the rest of NYC might one day be able to give Manhattan a run for its money where outdoor Shakespeare is concerned.
The biggest problems with this production come from the venue and Rebellious Subjects’ use thereof. The performance takes place in Prospect Park’s Music Pagoda, a venue that even the press release acknowledges is “rarely used.” It is so rarely used, in fact, that it’s very difficult to find. The park’s website only gives directions from one side of the park, and none of the park’s signposts mention it. Few passersby were able to help me, and even those who thought they might be able to help were very unsure. A simple flyer or chalk on the sidewalk reading, “Shakespeare This Way” would have helped loads. And while passing planes, helicopters, ambulances, etc. are consistent problems for any outdoor performance, actors will most times use their best discretion by holding off or sometimes even acknowledging the interruption for comic effect. Rebellious Subjects’ actors seem to try to power through these distractions. Only Jonathon Levy (Falstaff) has sufficient vocal power in his rich, rumbling baritone to be heard even a tiny bit over the noise. In these moments, the company denies its audience dialogue, poetry and information, and thus fails to convey the story.
The final issue with this particular venue has to do with the staging of the play. The Music Pagoda—usually used for orchestral performances—resembles a huge gazebo. Director Elyzabeth Gorman seems to have decided that scenes among the clowns and commoners, as well as battle scenes, should take place on the ground level directly before the audience, whereas court scenes would take place atop the elevated platform of the Pagoda. This makes intuitive sense, but when one factors in how far away that places all the scenes in the court—scenes that either carry a lot of emotional weight or carry heaps and heaps of expository information—it works against the production. Add noise pollution and the difficulties of making one’s voice carry outdoors, and much of the core story of Henry IV is done a disservice. This is a shame because so many of the players are actually right on track.
The clowns are hilarious—physical and boisterous—and are the actors that seem most comfortable inhabiting Shakespeare’s language. Bryn Boice as Mistress Quickly, Ben Friesen as Bardolph, Lauren Ferebee as Doll Tearsheet (stepping in for Sutton Crawford in the performance I saw) and, of course, Jonathan Levy’s Falstaff provide the most vibrant scenes, particularly when they are cavorting with Prince Hal (an excellent Montgomery Sutton, who I’ll discuss more later). These players are very human, and do an excellent job exhibiting how the high-minded machinations of the court affect the lower echelons. So often, clown scenes seem to be distractions from the plot, but as this production seeks to follow Prince Hal’s rise to power, Gorman not only does an impressive job of making the clown scenes integral, but here, they perhaps take on more importance than they are usually afforded. Steve Viola, in the titular role, has gravitas and is striking particularly in his early scenes, but as the play progresses he is often just shouting. This no doubt has a lot to do with the outdoor venue, but combined with his natural dialect—he sounds a bit like Joe Pantoliano—it can be unintentionally comedic because it seems so out of place. Patrick Woodall as the Chorus has a fantastic command of the language, and I look forward to seeing him tackle the very famous “O, for a muse of fire!” speech at the top of Henry V.
Nick Reinhardt captures all the brash, youthful passion of Hotspur, and Tiffany Abercrombie, in the role of Lady Percy, seems to take the old theatre adage that “if you want to make ‘em cry, you have to make ‘em laugh first” to heart. She’s so endearing in her earlier scenes with Hotspur that her reaction to his death hits home much harder than that of Hotspur’s own father, Northumberland (played by Eric Rice).
The star of the show is Prince Hal, the soon-to-be Henry V. Montgomery Sutton achieves a balance of naturalism and heightened speech that a lot of classical actors struggle with. While his casual air works against him in some of the earlier weighty scenes, he more than makes up for it by the end of the show. The change in Hal upon his father’s death, a shift that can easily ring false, is sold perfectly as the awakening of a young man who, having staved off growing up as long as he can, must suddenly play the part everyone’s been trying to prepare him for his entire life. The choice to have him interject during the Chorus’ final speech with Marc Antony’s line “Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war” shows us that he is prepared (to go perhaps too far) to fill his father’s shoes.
The histories are not always the most accessible form of family theatre, but with plenty of laughs and coming in at only about two and a half hours, it’s not prohibitive to bring the youngest of young audiences to this show. This company is dedicated and inventive (their solution for the battle scenes is very effective and beautiful to watch). The production is uneven, but the good outshines the bad with the potential to improve. Rebellious Subjects Theatre fights the good fight of bringing the arts to as wide an audience as possible. New York is a big enough town to handle theatre outside of Manhattan, and we Brooklyn natives can rest easy knowing that Shakespeare has a firm footing right in our backyard.