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50th Season Opens With Raucous History Play [PHOTOS]

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey opens 50th anniversary celebration with exciting, entertaining “Henry IV, Part One”

Sex, violence, rebellious children, rowdy drunks and lots of heavy metal.

These disturbing behaviors may sound more like the trappings of classic rock than classical theater, but it all took place more than 600 years ago, and is now being revived by the in Madison.

Yes, we’re talking about Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part One,” one of those history plays that so many people run away from. Too bad, because they should be running, not walking to the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at to enjoy this wildly entertaining history lesson.

Modern directors often update Shakespeare’s history plays in the hopes of attracting wary theatergoers who fear a dry and dreary exposition. Ironically, Director Joe Discher has created a very palatable production while presenting the story in traditional trappings.

His decision was in part . The costumes are period-appropriate for the Middle Ages and the bare-wood setting, with its long, dramatic staircases, reflects the Elizabethan era in which it was written.

Discher’s timing, though, is perfect, with much of America gathering around water coolers to dish on the popular HBO series, “Game of Thrones,” which borrows much from this ancient world. It’s worth mentioning that if you like that show, which won’t be back on the air until April, then you can help pass the downtime with a trip to Madison.

Still, without the proper execution, even this most popular of Shakespeare’s history plays can play like fingernails on a chalkboard. Fortunately, Discher has assembled a large, brilliant cast featuring many of the company’s most popular actors, who leave you wanting more after nearly three hours.

Even Shakespeare-phobics will find much to love—and identify with—in this mashup of conflict and comedy. Let’s review the plot for those who flunked British History 101: Henry IV (Brent Harris), who usurped Richard II (in an earlier play that launched Shakespeare’s tetralogy, which includes the two-part “Henry IV” and concludes with “Henry V”), is dealing with many conflicts. Many of his former loyalists are conspiring against him, led by the impulsive young upstart Hotspur (Jon Barker), while his own son and heir, Prince Hal (Derek Wilson), is quaffing ale and enjoying lap dances (making for a startling opening scene) in a local tavern.

His partner in crime is the aging knight Falstaff (John Ahlin), who is getting by mostly these days by charming Hal with his considerable bawdy humor. In truth, he is a fat, corrupt coward, but is also one of Shakespeare’s most enduring and likeable characters.

The young prince, whose transformation into a respectable prince is at the center of the story, takes some time. The first act alternates scenes of his father’s angst and Hotspur’s vengeful conspiracy with Hal’s participation in a staged robbery designed to make a fool of Falstaff.

After intermission, and a dramatic confrontation with his father, Hal becomes a hero on the battlefield in an exciting scene choreographed with verve by Fight Director Michael Rossmy. Blood-red hues by Lighting Designer Matthew E. Adelson should not be overlooked; indeed, Discher’s got all the elements working together with searing precision.

Of course, those elements include the actors. Harris, who played Atticus Finch in is a convincingly regal king, but his title character takes a back seat to Wilson and Ahlin as the young prince and his ribald enabler. Wilson, in his seventh season with the company, still looks young enough to play an immature teen, while Ahlin steals the night, not only with his oversized beard, belly and booming voice, but with the kind of subtle gestures and timing that make a good performance a great one.

They get sturdy support from Barker, who manages to make his character sympathetic even as you hate him, and Izzie Steele as Hotspur’s wife, Lady Percy, who knows how to push her love’s buttons.

Patrick Toon and Jeffrey M. Bender add to the merriment of the tavern scenes, as does Jesse Graham as the sassy tavern hostess and Cliff Miller as a harried tavern waiter.

Many in the supporting cast play multiple roles in this busy, exciting tale, which will keep you laughing, gasping and applauding.

And a note on etiquette

A final note: An impressively large crowd showed up for the Tuesday night performance reviewed here. Sadly, a few patrons compromised the efforts of the cast with some of the most appalling breaches of etiquette I have ever witnessed in a theater. It was bad enough that one woman failed to silence her cell phone and, of course, she got a call. Rather than hasten to silence it, however, she took her time and appeared to check her screen before putting it away.

OK, we all forget sometimes, but one would at least hope that the woman she was with would note the interruption and make an effort not to make things worse. Instead, she waited until the lights went down for the second act to pull out her phone and spend several minutes checking messages and even sending some, each with an audible tone. No doubt she had better things to do during intermission.

She made a token effort to hide what she was doing, but the bright-white glare and the noise projected in every direction. Seriously, if you don’t have the decency to respect the strangers sitting around you, at least show some respect for the actors you paid to see.

These women were most certainly old enough to know better and will probably never learn how to behave like mature adults. I can only hope you share my disgust and can bring some simple courtesy with you into this wonderful production.

 “Henry IV, Part One” runs through June 24 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (Route 124) at Drew University, Madison. Tickets $32 to $70. Discounts available for select performances; contact the box office for details. For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.

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