Cigarettes, Chocolate Milk & Shakespeare

“Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk” by Rufus Wainwright

“cigarettes and chocolate milk

these are just a couple of my cravings

everything it seems i like’s a little bit stronger

a little bit thicker

a little bit harmful for me

if i should buy jellybeans

have to eat them all in just one sitting

everything it seems i like’s a little bit sweeter

a little bit fatter

a little bit harmful for me

and then there’s those other things

which for several reasons we won’t mention

everything about them is a little bit stranger

a little bit harder

a little bit deadly”

What do singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright and the Dallas Theater Center adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV have in common? It’s astounding to watch 15th century British wastrel Prince Hal (as portrayed by DTC company member Steven Walters) break into Wainright’s hit pop ballad, “Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk”, with acoustic guitar accompaniment, in this production.  DTC’s handsome Hal is a spoiled slacker of a Prince of Wales, focused on wine, women and (pop) song as opposed to the rightful princely biz of waging war. Wikipedia reveals that Wainwright’s song “addresses decadence and desire, has been called an “ode to subtle addictions and the way our compulsions rule our lives”. The song’s inclusion must be Director Kevin Moriarty’s way of revealing Hal’s inner demons and motives through a modern vernacular. It’s effective in a quaint, cute way; shame that the show’s other songs, even beautifully sung, don’t follow its hipster motif.

Dallas Theater Center presents a peppy, visually appealing adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Parts I & 2: chopped, marinated and melted down to fit into one two and a half hour performance). The set, design by John Coyne, creates an excellent environment for a production that includes full-on stage combat, plotted rebellion on the ramparts, a dying king’s bedroom chamber and the interior of a tawdry inn, without need for realistic furnishing. A flowing minimalist raked assemblage of stacked aslant wooden platforms and ramps flanked by raw metal scaffolding delineates a three quarter round playing space. It’s the first time I’ve seen the Wyly Theater space infused with effective design innovation that truly supports a cast (in this case, twenty-two actors). Broken Chord Connection’s environmental sound design enlivens the play’s tension superbly, reinforcing the production’s themes of inner turmoil and political unrest. Period costumes by Jennifer Ables are attractive in style, texture and hue but are Disney-like spic and span; hard to believe the debauched, impoverished habitués of Mistress Quickly’s Tavern would wear neat, clean, tidy attire, much less battle weary soldiers. Tramp John Falstaff in a brightly polished, no dents, helmet? Only the women in the show, Christina Vela as Mistress Quickly and Abbey Siegworth as Doll, seem costumed for the period and character’s life station. (More about this noteworthy element later.) Lighting (Jeff Croiter) confuses and lacks definition. Many scenes overlap in rapid, cinematic fashion; the consistent wash of light prevents clear delineation of time or locale changes. It’s occasionally hard to tell who is in, or out of, a scene due to how brightly, or dimly, the stage is lit.

This adaptation of the two Henry plays makes an interesting entertainment, more accessible to a wider range of audience tastes and interests than a classically faithful presentation might be. And hours shorter. Cutting out lengthy speeches, combining the two plays and speeding everything up with overlap technique makes it play like a Bruce Willis style macho action flick with a father-son subplot while drunken crackpots stagger through for comic relief. No phony British accents!  The swordplay battle scenes add high energy and excitement. They are the high point of the production, most effective viewed from a distance as actors spar and parry across the catwalks and scaffolding above the main playing space. Up close, their ‘choreography’ becomes obvious.

Steven Walters is miscast as Prince Hal. He is too contemporary in acting style and delivery, too old and too wholesome, healthy and clean-scrubbed to play the dissolute character believably. Not even a trace of five o’clock shadow on his noble chin? I don’t buy his transition from playboy scoundrel prince to responsible young king, not for a moment. Paul Stuart as Hotspur, Hal’s nemesis, assails his role with every ounce of youthful energy and grit the role warrants. He makes an ideal contrast to how Shakespeare wrote the character of Hal. His death feels like the only real tragedy of the play. Randy Moore as Falstaff exhibits the glowing stage presence and superb comic timing that made him such a beloved actor here years ago but in no way embodies the bloated, grotesque physical presence the role clearly requires, as written. He looks more like a paunchy, wisecracking Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Actors in secondary roles carry this production. Kurt Rhoads makes a sympathetic, dignified dying King Henry IV and concerned father to Hal. Regional stalwarts Chamblee Ferguson, Regan Adair, Hassan El-Amin and Matthew Gray flesh out their roles as lords of the court or as rebels with clear diction, well-defined period style and as much depth as this mostly speech-free production affords.

Chrsitina Vela, Steven Walters

Christina Vela intrigues me as Mistress Quickly and makes me wish her role had more dimension, that her final act speech were longer.

Randy Moore, Christina Vela

I’m baffled by the largely superficiality and similarity of women’s roles that Dallas Theater Center has presented so far at the Wyly, with Sally Vahle as Linda Loman the main exception: mostly vamps and tramps with overly-displayed “shape”. All the men in this production look like they stepped out of a 19th century romantic painting; in inexplicably, notable contrast, Christina Vela and Abbey Siegworth look like hard-used street trash in serious need of a de-lice bath.  Even the denizens of the tavern don’t look as filthy and common. Dress the women down; deck out the men. Does this reflect some sort of misogyny in artistic vision? And Siegworth’s brief appearance as Hotspur’s devoted, elegantly attired wife Lady Percy is so truncated it’s hardly worth noting, feels like time bought for someone else’s costume change.

Is this Henry IV classical Shakespeare? Not hardly, but it’s a fast-paced, entertaining adaptation, featuring some of the finest acting talent the region has to offer. If that’s what it takes to sell seats at the Wyly and expand viability of stage performance in this region, I’m all for it. Maybe next season Dallas Theater Center will risk presenting Shakespeare as simply stage-worthy by itself and leave out the pop ballads.

Dallas Theater Center’s Henry IV runs through October 10 at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.

Tickets: 214-880-0202

Both photos from facebook, credit to Nan Coulter. No press photos provided.

Thanks to Robert Neblett for enlightening me about the pop ballad’s source.

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