Heartened by the warm reception of its production of the rarely staged “Timon of Athens” in South Boston last May, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project (ASP) returns this month to the Midway Studios off A Street with what was Shakespeare’s most popular work in his lifetime and its sequel. For the first time ASP will be performing two five-act plays in repertory: “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part 2,” both of which prominently feature Shakespeare’s most beloved comic character, Sir John Falstaff.
These are the middle two works in a four-play series Shakespeare wrote about the rise of the royal house of Lancaster in fifteenth-century England. The project has taken a little bit of the first play “Richard II” and tacked that on to the first Part of “Henry IV,” and taken parts of the fourth play “Henry V” and appended them to the end of the second “Henry IV” play to create what ASP dubs “The Coveted Crown.”
This cycle of plays follows the story of Henry IV, who usurps the throne from Richard II and then faces a bitter old age despairing over his dissolute oldest son, Hal, who seems totally unfit to succeed him. But against all expectations, Hal rises to his destiny and becomes the religious Henry V, who leads his army to conquer France.
“The Coveted Crown” explores a world in flux as King Henry IV questions his own legitimacy after deposing Richard II. And Hal, a prince with a partying problem and hidden ambition, is torn between his father’s world and that of the dissipated and uproarious Falstaff. “Family dynamics, comedy, and fights to the death: a whole lot of mash-up around a little round crown.
Both plays are being directed by Patrick Swanson, who in addition to having helmed ASP’s “King Lear” and “The Tempest,” has worked as Artistic Director for the Christmas Revels for decades.
Swanson uses his Revels’ background with English folk theater (particularly the amateur theatricals produced by tradesmen in medieval guilds) in the way he stages the play. Before Shakespeare’s work starts, a prologue presents the ASP cast as members of “The Guild of the Three Rusty Swords”:
“We have come here to tell you a story
Concerning young Harry le Roy
Of his victories and his achievements
Even though he was wild as a boy
Our actors have no fine apparel
They only have three rusty swords
But they’ll do their best to entertain you
When that they step out on these boards. “
Swanson adds, “The self-professed mission of Actor’s Shakespeare Project is to embrace the idea of ‘poor theatre’ and to wear their ‘poverty’ on their sleeve; simple sets and costumes, intimacy, an emphasis on telling the story in Shakespeare’s words rather than elaborate directorial concepts and ‘rich’ production values.”
“Our production is a referendum on the nature of leadership and the education of a ruler from the viewpoint of the commoner,” Swanson summarizes. “We think this is a pretty lively topic for 2010.”
The plays run in repertory from September 29 through November 21. On certain Saturdays those up for a double-header can see Part 1 at 3 p.m. and Part 2 at 8 p.m. with a long dinner break in between.
Midway Studios at 15 Channel Street is a short walk from either the Broadway or Andrews T stop. Details at actorsshakespeareproject.org.