Reign, reign, go away: it floods again

Doll Tearsheet (Nell Geisslinger), Falstaff (Michael Winters) and a disguised Prince Hal (John Tufts) in "Henry IV, Part Two." Photo: T. Charles Erickson/Oregon Shakespeare FestivalT. Charles Erickson/OSF

By Bob Hicks

All right, now, enough is enough. Not to get all Bardic on your heads, but this truly seems to be the summer of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s discontent.

Yesterday we told you about the storm that sapped the power all over the festival’s hometown of Ashland, and the emergency-tent performance that was thus wiped out, and we recounted the perils of the broken playhouse, which after six weeks of darkness thankfully will be whole again in another couple of weeks.

So now let’s catch up with last night and the Case of the Empty House. That would be, The Case of the Empty House Awash in Rain, except it wasn’t totally empty (Mr. Scatter exaggerates) and the rain, for all its annoyance, wasn’t exactly a gullywasher, although a fair share of the audience that did show up treated it like the Johnstown Flood.

The theater was the Elizabethan Stage, that grand open-air space that holds 1,200 people. The play was Henry IV, Part Two, the midplay in the Henry saga and in many ways the least stirring, yet a play that still has considerable charms. The audience was … sparse. I’ve seen a few light houses in the 30-plus years I’ve been coming to the festival, but for a Saturday night in July and a play that may not be one of the box-office boffos like Twelfth Night but is hardly Troilus and Cressida or Pericles, Prince of Tyre either, the wide swaths of empty seats were shocking.

Had the tickets not been sold? Were potential theatergoers delaying or canceling their trips to Ashland because the Bowmer Theatre was out of commission? Did people buy tickets but stay home or hit the bars instead because there’d been a little rain? No matter how things turned out on stage, this was  not a good sign. The Bowmer closure is costing the festival loads of money in ways big and small (one of the small ones is that the temporary tent where the Bowmer shows are being presented during the shutdown is in Lithia Park, and because it’s a city park, the festival can’t sell beer and wine before shows or at intermissions) and each one of those empty Saturday night seats represented another small leak in the giant ship’s hull. Prospero, can you calm the seas now, please?

When the weather looks chancy, experienced festivalgoers wear jeans and pack a few layers for a show on the outdoor stage. Yet after a preshow rain left little beads of water on the seats, the grumbling in the crowd sounded like a distant roll of thunder. Ushers were handing out paper towels to fastidious patrons. Mr. Scatter’s attitude is, soaking up water is what God created denim for. Obviously a lot of people in the audience didn’t agree. The show got going under a dry but darkening sky. A few minutes later it began to rain again, lightly, but lightly apparently was too much. As the actors braved on, dozens of people got up, grabbed their belongings, and scurried back to empty seats in the rows beneath the Allen Pavilion, where the seats were protected from what was really not much more than a quickly passing mist. You’d have thought they were at home, ducking out during a commercial break to get some chips and dip.

So there were distractions, and it was a little tough to tell when attention was flagging because of the distractions and when it was flagging because things weren’t quite clicking onstage. H42 has a lot of exposition — all of that politics-and-war stuff, really, is told rather than shown — and it seemed to be getting rushed through in declamatory style, messengers supposedly talking to other characters onstage but instead facing straight out to the audience as they declaimed. It’s a built-in problem with this play, and not impossible to resolve but harder on the outdoor stage, which requires broader gestures, pronounced projection, and a slower pace. What subtleties were in these exchanges were mostly washed away, and the mind wandered after them.

And now the bad news ends. Because the heart of this play, which is neither Henry IV (who is dying) nor young Henry V (who is waiting) but the reprobate knight Sir John Falstaff and his rowdy Eastcheap companions at the Boar’s Head tavern, is mostly gold. Michael Winters’ Falstaff captures the elements of pure buffoonery of the latter-day Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor but gives us something more, too: the scheming, self-serving cynic who is a beat smarter than most of his companions and as quick of wit as he is slow of feet. He’s like a situational log-roller, always in over his head yet somehow always managing to stay above the waves. As spoiled and rundown as he is — Falstaff is an old man trying desperately to be young, and Winters shows us that the old knight is self-aware enough to know that — we see the flashes of charm and frittered-away leadership abilities that have allowed him to skate through life. In truth, this Falstaff has sterling political potential. So, too, with his broadly and superbly drawn companions: Kimberly Scott’s girlish-bossy Mistress Quickly, Nell Geisslinger’s haunted and needy bawd Doll Tearsheet, Brent Hinkley’s slab-faced Bardolph. Old pros James Edmondson and Michael J. Hume take delightful turns as the country Justices Shallow and Silence. And although this play isn’t really all that much  about the prodigal son Prince Hal, John Tufts gets the prodigal part right: with his low-slung shock of hair and clean square chin he comes across at times like a classical Charlie Sheen. Prodigal, indeed.

After the show, the Large Large Smelly Boy talked about the great bailout during the rain. “I just kept thinking, you people think this is bad, what about the actors?” he said. “They had to keep working whether it was raining or not. They had it tough, not the audience.”

The kid has possibilities.


ILLUSTRATION: Doll Tearsheet (Nell Geisslinger) and Falstaff (Michael Winters) make merry, as a disguised Prince Hal (John Tufts) prepares to surprise them. Photo: T. Charles Erickson/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.