Even avid Shakespeare fans — up to and including those who missed the Shakes' 2020 production of Henry IV, Part 1 — can find the Bard's historical plays a daunting proposition. Have no fear, though. The Orlando Shakes company has completely prepared for audience members with little to no familiarity with Shakespeare's more historical pieces. No homework is required in advance of attending a performance of the "Bare Bard" version of Henry IV, Part 2.
This production possesses the rare occurrence of an introduction that's both informative and compelling beyond the usual "silence your cellular devices" and "familiarize yourself with the exits." The preshow consists of two unique and surprising elements. First is an entertaining video summary of Henry IV, Part I, complete with adorable cartoon drawings created by Mya Lixian Gosling. It's followed by a live curtain speech delivered by actor Timothy Williams, detailing the acting process undertaken by the company. These imaginative prefaces to the performance eliminate all superfluous worries of being lost in the historical weeds, and prime the audience.
The beauty of this "Bare Bard" production is that it takes inspiration from numerous theatrical practices that persisted throughout Shakespeare's lifetime. The production did not involve a director or designers, only the actors themselves. Putting on a successful show without a separate technical production team is an impressive feat all on its own — and beyond that, the cast only had one week to rehearse their difficult material.
To assist with the unexpected — missed cues or forgotten phrases — the actors had a dedicated line prompter (Adonis Perez) known as the "Prithee," seated beside the stage in order to feed actors their lines at a moment's notice. Even with this precaution and such limited rehearsal time, the performers were almost always on the ball with both memorization and compelling vocal delivery (with one exception of an unplanned delayed entrance that left the cast members onstage looking slightly befuddled).
A visually intriguing aspect of the production was allowing the cast to decide on their own clothing with a limited amount of time and resources. This led to even more sight gags — one of which was when Falstaff, the comedic head of the piece, modeled a well-worn Santa Claus suit. We couldn't stop giggling at it for the rest of the performance.
Speaking of Falstaff, Orlando Shakes veteran Phillip Nolan absolutely dominates the stage with impeccable comedic timing and an understanding of the Shakespearean quips constantly spewed by the raffish character. His physicality is an added strength, complementing Falstaff's insistence that he's young at heart and therefore immune to the undesirable effects of aging.
Another performance that caught our attention was Anne Hering's portrayal of the loquacious and long-winded Mistress Quickly. Hering's gift for making convoluted language and prose sound completely conversational will convince you that speaking clearly with such heightened language is easy. (It's not.)
Benjamin Bonenfant gives an insightful performance as Prince Hal, and he does a great job at demonstrating the complexities of a character learning to balance newfound maturity with his more boyish predispositions. As a whole, the entire ensemble of actors portraying multiple characters was both dynamic and innovative, giving each actor more to do in their already limited time.
Orlando Shakes' "Bare Bard" production of Henry IV, Part 2 demonstrates with creativity how one does not have to be well-versed in the entire oeuvre of William Shakespeare to find delight and appreciation for his artistry, even in his more historical pieces. We're already anticipating the company's upcoming performance of Henry V, the next piece in the "Fire and Reign" series. After you've witnessed the creativity that this committed ensemble of artists can pull together in only one week, you too will be eager for more. And there will be more, as the Shakes' ambitious "Fire ..." series still has several more plays — and misfortune-plagued monarchs — to bring to life.