Whither the Distaff Falstaff? | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Whither the Distaff Falstaff? 

In an otherwise cross-gendered reimagining, Stockyards gives a guy one of theater's plummiest roles.

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Henry 4 (Part One)

Stockyards Theatre Project

at the Theatre Building Chicago

No Shakespearean title character makes less of an impression than the monarch in the two parts of Henry IV--this is the fat man's show all the way. So it's puzzling that Falstaff should be the only one of the major characters played by a man in Stockyards Theatre Project's cross-gendered "ferocious reimagining" of the work, Henry 4 (part one). Was there no plus-size actress--or any actress, for that matter, since this actor is fairly trim--able to tackle one of theater's greatest roles? Or is it simply impossible to imagine a woman with Sir John's gleeful nihilism, unabashed instinct for self-preservation, gift for supreme irony, and plain ol' down-and-dirty life force?

Though Eric Frederickson's performance as the knight errant is sometimes charming, much of the ferocity of this uneven production, directed by Katie Carey Govier and fight choreographer Angela Bonacasa, feels forced. It's obvious that many women, from Indira Gandhi to Margaret Thatcher to Condi Rice, know how to play politics and fight hard and dirty (often with someone else's life in the balance). Govier knows this, saying in her director's note that "women, like men, are vicious, brutal, compassionate, good-willed, jealous, over-zealous, passionate, violent, insecure. . . ." But Stockyards has abandoned the opportunity to present a woman who's feckless, filthy, self-indulgent, effortlessly witty--and perfectly right in her worldview.

Despite all the blather about Prince Hal's transformation from roisterer to warrior and prodigal to dutiful son, Falstaff offers the play's keenest, most heartfelt insights--which all stress staying alive at any cost. This is a familiar world, consumed with the empty sound bites of noble rot: honor and duty and loyalty, the latter demanded by a king who won the throne by betraying the previous monarch, Richard II. Falstaff alone knows what is counterfeit and what is real. When he plays possum in the middle of battle, it's a legitimate strategy for surviving a war between squabbling nobles who don't give a damn about the soldiers caught in their pissing contest. Falstaff defends his fakery with "I am no counterfeit: to die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man, who hath not the life of a man." You can imagine the withering things he might say about the United States continuing to fight in Iraq so those who've died will not have died "in vain."

What's worth dying for? In Falstaff's view, probably nothing--at least nothing the powers that be tell him should be worth it. No peace activist, he takes bribes from noblemen who wish to avoid battle, sending in their stead the pitiful and luckless (though of course in real life no one uses privilege to avoid combat). When Hal looks aghast at Falstaff's army of beggars, the old knight notes that "they'll fill a pit as well as better."

Some of the choices in Stockyards' production are intelligent while others are mysterious. Bonacasa's choreography makes the final battle between Hotspur and Hal a thrilling clash of scions, and some visual bits are clever and effective. Fiery Welsh rebel Glendower, who has a mystical bent, is played by Elizabeth Urello like a comic Merlin complete with Celtic face paint. And because the women in male parts are still identified as male, there are no clunky pronoun shifts to damage the language. But Govier unaccountably sacrifices one of the play's most arresting moments in her adaptation, which clocks in at an admirably swift two and a half hours. In a striking third-act scene, two of the rebels' wives bid their husbands farewell before battle--and the contrast between the acidic Lady Percy and the nearly distraught Lady Mortimer, who speaks only Welsh and communicates mostly in signs, underlines the play's constant comparison of action and talk. It's odd, too, that a company interested in exploring gender roles would excise these women entirely.

The ensemble is uneven, but there are noteworthy performances. Elizabeth Styles is a fluid and charismatic Hal. And though Stacie Barra's first appearance as the peppery Hotspur is more suggestive of hysteria than thunderous rage, her characterization deepens over the course of the play. Stephanie Repin is a marvel of rock-hard commitment as Worcester, Hotspur's uncle and an instigator of the uprising against Henry. Mary Ross doesn't find many nuances in the king, but then Henry is more or less a cipher--a man who wants the trappings of authority, then has precious little idea what to do with the real thing.

Frederickson's Falstaff makes up in hair what he lacks in girth, though the beads and braids in his beard suggest a laid-back Burning Man pilgrim more than a sack-swilling hedonist. Playing with swords is good, clean, sweaty fun, and the women in the cast do well at it. But Falstaff triumphs with words--some of the funniest and bleakest that Shakespeare wrote. By contrast the king's and nobles' harangues seem interchangeable and the characters themselves puny. Imagining a world with female Falstaffs--women whose voices count even though they're not grieving mothers, pure-hearted victims, or spotless do-gooders--now that would be radical.

When: Through 9/4: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM. Also Sat 2 PM.

Where: Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont

Price: $17-$20

Info: 773-327-5252

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