What they say it is:
Two young rebels and a king: Harry “Hotspur” Percy is mounting a rebellion to defend the honor of his family against the callous power of his uncle, King Henry IV. Prince Hal is recklessly drinking away his legitimate authority as heir to the throne, presiding with his obnoxious friend Falstaff over a small kingdom of drunkards and thieves at the Boar’s Head Tavern.King Henry IV’s plan to lead a victorious crusade to the Holy Lands is quashed by the mess at home. In epic style, forces will clash on the battle field and in the hearts of all three men.
I can’t say for certain how many years Tara and I have been attending Shakespeare in Clark Park; at a guess, we’ve probably been to at least 5 performances of their 9 year run. The tradition has gotten bigger and better over time; at this particular event, when the (virtual) curtain rose at 7 PM, the park must have had around 800?? audience members (my best guess–it could be much higher) on blankets, chairs, and straight-up Ye Olde Grass seating. The entire north side of the bowl was packed, the playground was filled with antsy kids, and some folks even had a whole buffet table established like a mini pavilion (a birthday party, apparently). And this was all for a THURSDAY show.
Henry IV is one I’ve read several times; if you don’t immediately recall, it’s the one with fat old Falstaff in the tavern, trading jests and cynical life observations with Prince Hal, the errant heir to the throne. Of all the histories, I find it to be the most readable and entertaining, largely thanks to the perfect balance of drama vs. comedy, along with the way the play poses (but doesn’t conclusively answer) questions of morality, honor, and duty.
The production of this show was clearly SiCP’s most ambitious to date. Earlier in the year, I’d begun receiving emails inviting the public to participate as part of the show’s own army—they were casting 100 soldiers to take part in the climatic battle scene (which technically occurs in Henry IV pt.2, but was blended into one seamless performance for the sake of brevity). As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I’ve got an unfulfilled fantasy of “trying” acting at some point in my life, and this would have been a great opportunity—but my devotion to Phishtour and other summertime adventures conflicted with the troupe’s practice schedule. Anyway, judging by the impressive size of the on-field turnout, it looked like company’s efforts were successful. Battle scenes were choreographed, operatic movements of smoke and swirling color. Rather than rendering a predictable scene of sword-waving and clattering shields, the production’s army was a swirling, choreographed sea of rushing bodies, achieving an effect more similar to a warring whirlpool than a cheesy Hollywood clash of titans. Banners flew, smoke machines spread sickly sweet clouds across the Clark Park bowl, and the principle players fought in front of this living backdrop.
So yes, the battles were great, but I also really liked the actual play, and in particular, the casting for Hal and Falstaff. Hal (Brian Ratcliffe) was a spot-on match to my imagination of the sassy, irreverent Prince; and though I’ve always had a completely different mental image of Falstaff (much! fatter, and darker haired, at least in my imagination), the actor (Charlie DelMarcelle) did an excellent job with the humor and loud, boisterous presentation of Shakespeare’s most famous fool. Overall, the entire cast was well selected and clearly comfortable in their roles—the woman who played the barmaid and the courtly ladies (Marla Burkholder) was both funny and convincing, and the roaring rebel Bardolph was enormously entertaining, though his role is mostly as an offstage ‘villain’.
Summary: What a great tradition. At the conclusion of the show, we donated $14 into the red light buckets (a pay-what-you-will donation system that deserves praise in itself) and walked home, already looking forward to next year’s tenth-anniversary of this awesome West Philadelphia institution.
I was walking our lovely dog Hello (yes, if you’ve never met him, that is his name) in West Philadelphia when I stumbled upon the opening-night preparations for Henry IV. I debated staying for the show, but knowing my husband would also like to attend, I kept on walking and noted the dates and time of the upcoming performances. I was really excited to see this particular show, having previously learned about the troupe’s open-door audition for a hundred-person, community-sourced volunteer army. In my minds eye, there would be a chaotic mass of people charging into the Clark Park bowl, slaying each other Braveheart style . . . or…it was going to be a horrid mess of people who’d initially thought it sounded fun to be a part of a play–but then failed attend rehearsal and screwed everything up. Anyway, I excitedly called my husband and quickly scheduled our “date” to see Shakespeare in Clark Park and the army of the masses.
I love living in Philly. Just one day later, I was on the 34 trolley on my way home from work, planning to meet Clay in the park–I wanted to get to the show early and allow my butt to occupy some prime show-watching real estate. Turned out, it was a good thing I arrived at a decent time- the audience included a full-on birthday party with a table, balloons and cake (though we weren’t part of their group, we did get to sing Happy Birthday) and entire sections with folks who’d brought lawn chairs. (Many thanks to the ushers for kiboshing the front row of lawn chairs!). Oh, anyway, back to why I LOVE Philadelphia. It turned out I was riding the trolley with a gentleman who was in the show’s choir. Upon arrival at the show, he introduced himself to me, told me a little about himself and his involvement with the show, and wanted to hear my opinions about the choir, music and the army. It is always refreshing to meet new, interesting and genuinely nice people. If you’re out there reading, sir, thank you for saying hi–I really enjoyed our chat and your performance in the choir.
I was thrilled when my husband arrived with our little buddy Hello (our pup is perfect for attending outdoor shows, as his seventeen pounds stature is akin to that of a cat-sized dog). We’re dog people, and hate leaving him home–obviously, he isn’t able to come to most theatre events but does enjoy them (or at least being outside on a summer’s evening)! We got settled on our blanket and prepared for the evening’s entertainment. I was also thankful that Clay brought his annotated Shakespeare so I could follow the text along with the play. (I love Shakespeare, but the open air nature of Clark Park shows sometimes interferes with my ability to hear the troupe. During this particular show I had no trouble hearing, but liked the comfort of having the text nearby.) So we were all set to have a great night–blanket, dog, family, text and snacks.
So do you finally want to hear about the show?
The troupe made a silly, spirited attempt to describe the historical background of the play- England, Scotland and Wales at war, along with the roles of the king, Prince Hal, Harry Percy (aka Hotspur) and the Earl of Douglas. Unlike my husband I did not study literature in college (or English, as you can tell from my grammar)…..so I did not have a working knowledge of this show, so I can only express some small observations about the play itself. For instance, I did notice one of my favorite Shakespeare characters – the large and boisterous Falstaff–was going to make an appearance. The actor (Charlie DelMarcelle) playing Falstaff was not as large as we imagine Shakespeare’s character, so he was adequately (and comically) padded to play the role, along with ruddy jolliness on his cheeks and nose. My understanding of Falstaff is that of a narcissistic embellisher (i.e. a liar), but his lies are so ridiculous–and he is so cowardly and self-involved–that I can’t help but love him. As a result, Falstaff’s eventual rejection by Prince Hal left me hating Hal’s character. I know this is not totally accurate but, Prince Hal reminds me of George Bush Jr.
The prince is born to a powerful father, and his birthright expects that he take an interest in ruling and will make his father proud. Instead, Prince Bush falls in with the wrong crowd–drinking and doing cocaine, generally messing around, and not preparing for adult responsibilities. Other players wait in the wings (Hotspur), actively honing their intelligence and humanity in a quest to become powerful leaders (rather than merely inheriting the role). As the play shows us, Prince Hal/Bush eventually decides to change his ways and reunite with his father, taking power as he was ‘born to do’. Leaving his friends (the bad influence peons–i.e. former friends that he abandons the moment his fortunes change, and then he turns into an evangelical Christian)….. ok, sorry, so it’s not really the same story and my analogy is getting stretched, but come on, Shakespeare is great because somehow he focused on these universal kernels of human nature that carry through to present day.
My final two cents are, Shakespeare In Clark Park, I do love you dearly, but it would be nice if there were a few more roles for the females next time around! Anyway, I think Clay described how well the troupe did with this production and I agree with the bulk of his comments above. Thanks again, Shakespeare in Clark Park! Thank you for bring free art to West Philly!