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Honorable Mention - Best Fight Choreography - Brian Danner - Back Stage West

A 'Henry' for Bard lovers

If you're not on seat's edge as "Henry IV, Part One" reaches its galvanic final battle, it's the fault of neither company nor playwright. This sprightly Theatre Banshee rendition of Shakespeare's historical epic apprehends a world of figures with quick dexterity.

Take actor Barry Lynch's spot-on Falstaff, equal parts Orson Welles and Dick Shawn, who typifies a valiant ensemble. Every padded inch "the veriest varlet that ever chewed with a tooth," Lynch devours the role. He has a fine foil in Seth Compton's impetuous Prince Hal, beautifully matched with Andrew Leman's eloquent King Henry.

Attacking meter with ease defines this cast, especially Matt Foyer's brilliant Worcester and Josh Thoemke, a dynamic find as Hotspur. Mary O'Sullivan is a daft Bardolph, Fleur Phillips a vital Lady Percy. Dan Harper sharply contrasts Douglas and the Sheriff, David Combs resounds as Blunt, and so goes the invested troupe.

Prudently cutting the Arden edition, director Sean Branney molds his storytelling around set designer Arthur MacBride's floor maps and a stark throne that upends into tavern bar. Costumer Laura Brody and lighting designer O'Sullivan make resourceful use of austerity, while fight choreographer Brian Danner earns high marks.

Branney's pace rides at high speed to the occasional detriment of nuance and clarity. This affects exposition and asides that could confuse those unfamiliar with the Bard's preceding "Richard II." Yet the quips and quiddities of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly (Josie DeVincenzo) are tickling, the Welsh exchange of Lady Mortimer (Robyn Heller) and Glendower (John McKenna) mesmeric.

Such a tersely intelligent reading should only deepen as the run progresses. "Henry IV" may flirt with the frenetic, but it's never boring, and devotees should be sated.

Reviewed for the Los Angeles Times by David C. Nichols


Banshee's Henry IV Is On Point

The fact that the throne occupied by Henry Bolingbroke (aka King Henry IV) of England also doubles as a tavern counter in Cheapside may or may not be symbolic. After all, Shakespeare's Prince Hal (the future Henry V) bellies up to the bar almost as frequently as he does to the throne.

More likely, however, Theatre Banshee's creative use of table space is best attributed to economics and efficiency. A big, sprawling play like "Henry IV, Part 1" is best kept manageable, particularly when braved by a small company like Burbank's Banshee.

As it happens, small does not signal compromised effort. Not in this case. Sean Branney's production is replete with strong performances, steady energy and a fair quotient of humor. (This is the play, it will be remembered, that introduces the world to Sir John Falstaff.) Theatergoers are often loath to touch the less-known "classic" plays. Skipping the Banshee's "Henry IV" would be a mistake.

In "Henry IV," we see the king (Andrew Leman) still angst-ridden over his deposition and murder of Richard II, and even more concerned over political fractioning and some family troubles. Harry "Hotspur" Percy (Josh Thoemke) is displaying both valor and rebelliousness while the king's son Hal (Seth Compton) spends his time carousing. The king openly wishes there had been a switched-at-birth mistake whereby Hotspur, not Hal, could be in line for the throne.

As matters progress, Hotspur gets more fiery while Hal tilts more toward honor. Then there's Hal's companion Falstaff (a fat-suit-clad Barry Lynch), a man of great appetite, tavern wisdom and utter cowardice. Lynch is not the bigger-than-life scene stealer the role often attracts (Kevin Kline and John Goodman have played it in recent years), but he's got the requisite swagger and moxy.

The Hotspur/Hal strand proceeds smartly on parallel tracks. When the two meet in battle, as they inevitably must, it's a dramatic and satisfying moment. And fight choreographer Brian Danner stages the stuffing out of it.

Fight work this prolonged and detailed — particularly on a stage of this size — is a thing of beauty. Danner and fight assistants T.J. Cencula and David Hernandez have the entire stage peopled with banging, hacking, sword-wielding combatants. At such a moment, the Banshee's digs don't look cramped in the slightest.

Reviewed by Evan Henerson for the Los Angeles Daily News


*** PICK OF THE WEEK ***

In the world of theatre plays, there are the sappy musicals, light comedies, dark comedies and heavy dramas. Then there’s Henry IV (Part 1). With a cast half the size of New York, Theatre Banshee has taken on the daunting task of presenting Shakespeare’s epic saga of power, conflict and treason. To their credit, this is not an updated version or an adapted version – it’s not contemporary in costumes or language and it doesn’t cross gender or cross over into any of the umpteen variations so often seen with Shakespeare productions. It’s pretty straightforward using the language of the 1600’s and as mounted by the Banshees it’s easily one of the most powerful and compelling productions this year.
 
Henry IV is preparing to join the Crusades, but his plan is interrupted by news of a huge battle with Welsh rebels where one of his men, Mortimer has been captured, losing his army. From there the conspiracy begins, with a knight named Hotspur refusing to turn over his captives from a battle against Scottish rebels and the king refusing to pay the ransom for the return of Mortimer. Hotspur’s uncle Worcester has been hatching a plan to overthrow Henry and now finds this a good time to bring Hotspur into it.

Henry’s son Hal is a close friend of Falstaff, a man known for his drinking, lying and variable loyalties, making Henry wish that his son would avoid such company and be more like Hotspur. As the story develops, conspiracies grow and the people around the king reveal their true loyalties. Finally, after several battles and some revelations, Henry manages to quell the uprising, only to prepare for another challenge will be coming soon (in Henry IV Part 2).

The first thing one notices is the great set decoration that gives the stage a grandiose and regal span. When Henry IV makes his entrance with his trusted court, you know this will be a special performance, and as the play evolves, the actors embrace the roles with the customary gusto that this company has been known to exhibit. With Sean Branney’s sterling direction, the story flows building to its tense climactic final scenes and Brian Danner’s fight scenes are so ferocious and realistic, one cringes when the swords clash against metal shields as energy levels rise to heart-thumping thrills.
 
Some actors, like Josh Thoemke as Hotspur or Andrew Leman as Henry IV are solemn, compelling and serious, while others like Seth Compton as Prince Hal and Matt Foyer as Poins range from the frolicsome to the somber. Then there’s Barry Lynch, who as Falstaff, provides a gaggle of humor, heavily laced with wit and ultimate surprising loyalty. While Barry is a large man, he does not enjoy the Falstaffian girth, so he has been given a huge artificial stomach which seems to shift occasionally from side to side, a little like the proverbial "bowl full of jelly" attributed to Saint Nick. Aside from than, the actors are frocked in splendid period costumes, with the nobles looking lordly and the commons appearing peasantish all of which combine to make this one of the most impressive presentations so far this year.

The cast includes Phillip C. Curry, David Coombs, Jason Ball, Jason Tendell, Matt Foyer, David Mersault, Dan Conroy, Mary O’Sullivan, Douglas Clayton, Robyn Heller, Fleur Phillips, Josie DiVincenzo, Dan Harper, John McKenna and understudy David Pavao.

reviewed by José Ruíz for Reviewplays.com


Banshee's Henry IV, part one

Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, a historical action play crammed with family values, unsuitable friends and outsize humor, gets the production it deserves at tiny Theatre Banshee in Burbank. Since they specialize in Irish theatre, it's provocative to see them hop over the pond to embrace this English history play that includes a Welsh leader reputed to be a magician. Especially amazing are the dazzling battle scenes they're able to mount on their small stage, thanks to Fight Choreographer Brian Danner.

Based on 15th century civil wars, the conflict follows the deposition of King Richard II by Henry IV. Rebel nobles, headed by Harry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland, contest Henry's leadership. Even as he plans to quell the rebellion, Henry wishes his own son, the Prince of Wales, also called Harry or Hal, had more of Hotspur's iron and less of the love of pranks and carousing that make him vulnerable to the approbation of the fat and fascinating Sir John Falstaff.

Falstaff is one of the great Shakespearean characters, so popular that Shakespeare had trouble killing him off. Queen Elizabeth I demanded a special comedy written just for Falstaff which resulted in The Merry Wives of Windsor and Laurence Olivier inserted his deathbed scene into Henry V. In Henry IV, Part One Shakespeare has written some roundly comic scenes for him that are as leavening as the clown scenes in the comedies.

The theatre has helpfully provided a scene synopsis for those bewildered by the many characters and the appropriately fast pace of Shakespeare's language but it's not needed to follow the story and appreciate some of Shakespeares's best and most poetic writing. Director Sean Branney keeps the articulation clear and also keeps the focus on the relationships between Hal and his two fathers, the King with his standards of duty and honor, and Falstaff, with his world of warmth and fun. The conflict between the two Harrys, Hal and Hotspur, is also clearly drawn.

The excellent cast is headed by Barry Lynch, who was born to play Falstaff; Seth Compton as a youthful conflicted Prince Hal; Josh Thoemke who has the difficult task of playing the persistently fiery Hotspur and is still searching for ways to find nuances in the character; Matt Foyer as Hotspur's uncle Worcester, whose suave treachery born of fear is low-key and penetrating; Andrew Leman, every inch the King; Dan Harper, as the fierce Douglas; John McKenna as Owen Glendower, projects the Welsh leader's aura of self-satisfied mysticism.

The women's roles are small but well defined by Josie DiVincenzo as Mistress Quickly, Robyn Heller who sings a charming Welsh song as Lady Mortimer, and Fleur Phillips, more than a match for Hotspur as his wife, Lady Percy, a relationship we'd love to see more of.

Arthur MacBride's versatile scenic design is centered by Dutch Neusmyth's design of an imposing throne for the court scenes which is reversed into a bar for the Boar's Head Tavern. Mary O'Sullivan's lighting design ranges subtly from court to night; she also doubles as a delightful Bardolph. If you're lucky, you may hit the Banshee on a night when the performance is followed by a reception, featuring the Irish music of the wonderful band Slugger O'Toole to which some of the cast belong.

Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock for CurtainUp.com


‘Henry’ to ‘Henry’
Two different views of Shakespeare’s father-and-son royals hit local stages

Ever since Dubya restored the Bush dynasty to power, it has been tempting to compare the two Bush presidents with the father and son kings at the heart of Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays. Shakespeare showed how Henry IV’s older son, the party animal Prince Hal, straightened up in order to assume the mantle of national leadership that eventually brought him his very own sequel, Henry V. Sounds familiar?

The comparisons aren’t airtight. Henry IV didn’t pull strings to keep his son out of harm’s way during wartime – in fact, Prince Hal had to fight on the front lines to earn his father’s approval. Bush’s foreign wars haven’t succeeded like Henry V’s.

Still, the analogies make Hal’s saga particularly interesting to Americans in the 21st century. Two companies are offering strikingly different takes on the two-Henry saga: Theatre Banshee’s Henry IV Part One and CalRep’s 445: Shakespeare’s Henry.

The former is Sean Branney’s remarkably lucid and engaging production of Shakespeare’s original. 445 is Thomas P. Cooke’s more arid “greatest hits” compilation of the three Henry plays (the two Henry “4” plays plus the one “5” play).

Because of a building inspector’s orders, CalRep was recently forced to move from its intimate downtown Long Beach theater back to Cal State Long Beach, where the company was born. 445 is in the 160-seat Studio Theatre on the campus – a spacious, high-ceilinged box, with the audience on three sides of the stage. Maureen Weiss’s set is dominated by four metallic columns at each corner of the stage, connected with girders at the top – it’s a literal interpretation of Shakespeare’s description of the Henry V stage as a “scaffold.”

The actors wear modern clothes but also don a token layer of period costumes – which leads to such unusual sights as the striped sleeves of Hal’s (Josh Nathan) contemporary shirt emerging from beneath his 15th-century tunic. This blending of the present day with the past is probably intentional. It’s also reflected in the visible backstage, the conceit that cast members wander onstage before the show and during intermission, and casting of women in many of the men’s roles, including Falstaff (Deborah Taylor). But the concept stops short of drawing explicit connections to current events or characters. It serves mainly to inhibit any emotional investment we’re making, because we see so plainly that the players are “just acting.”

445 feels a bit academic – and not necessarily because the venue is at a university. The advantage of seeing the three plays streamlined into one is that we observe the macrocosmic arc of the longer narrative. But with so many cuts in the text, we don’t necessarily see the microcosm. For that, go to Theatre Banshee’s little venue in Burbank.

Here, with actors a few feet away and the text mostly intact, nuances spring to life. For example, when a newlywed combatant and his wife express their love despite their linguistic differences (she sings in Welsh, he understands only English), it has little to do with the plot. But it creates a magical respite from the play’s hurly-burly and suggests the dimensions of a life outside a war zone almost as much as the carousing scenes with Falstaff.

Big, boisterous Barry Lynch is a formidable Falstaff, and the slight-built but passionate Seth Compton is a worthy Hal. Josh Thoemke’s bantam-cock Hotspur gets to build his fury to an unwittingly amusing pitch that would be impossible for the Hotspur in Long Beach to attain, simply because Cooke cut short so many of Hotspur’s speeches. Of course, we don’t learn how the story ends in Burbank – but maybe Theatre Banshee should plan on producing at least the first of the two sequels.

Reviewed by Don Shirley for LA City Beat


Theatre Banshee's expedition into Shakespeare takes a noble cast from a company with strong Irish underpinnings to England to jostle for the crown of England in 1402. Historically, after Richard II lost a war against Ireland, Henry Bolingbroke returned from exile, killed Richard, and had himself crowned Henry IV. According to Shakespeare, this made a lot of people angry, including Scottish and Welsh rebels, who were quick to rise against him, led by Hotspur, a fire-eating warrior who plans Henry's overthrow.

The battle that follows tests the mettle of Prince Hal, the aging King's dissolute son, who prefers the taverns and the jokes of the rotund Falstaff to fighting. Shakespeare's comic invention, Falstaff, is much more fun than Hal's distant father. At stake here is more than a mere kingdom — it is the relationship between a father and his son. Henry (a stately Andrew Leman) sadly admits he would have preferred the heroic firebrand, Hotspur (a vivid Josh Thoemke), as his heir in lieu of Hal, who doesn't meet the expectations of his royal blood.

As Hal, Seth Compton more than meets the play's expectations; his scenes with the philandering Falstaff are expertly comedic and well-timed, whereas he capably assumes a diffident, unsure personality when he's in his father's vicinity. Compton's physical resemblance to Thoemke as Hotspur, King Henry's ideal, is remarkable, though there the likeness ends. Thoemke reads Shakespeare well, but his hyperactivity and constant hair-flipping become exhausting to watch, and sheer volume tends to replace comprehension.

Barry Lynch is magnificent as Falstaff, the pathetically foolish, roistering rogue — a funny, fat drunkard. Shakespeare also gave him the best lines. With the coy Mistress Quickly (Josie DiVincenzo), the tavern madam, and the foolish Bardolph (a lively Mary O'Sullivan), Lynch is in his element.

Sean Branney directs with vigor, a lot of style, and a bit of Dutch courage, occasionally seeming to fear the words may get away from him, so that they sometimes are lost to overresonance. Arthur MacBride's scenic design, which consists mainly of a huge throne that doubles as a bar and requires four people to move it, rather interferes with the pace. Laura Brody's costumes are eloquent, and O'Sullivan's lighting helps tell the tale.

This is a worthy production, but for lengthy shows those wooden seats need padding.

Reviewed by Madeline Shaner for Back Stage West


Theatre Banshee's current offering of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part One" suffers from uneven performances by the cast and lacks cohesive soul — the pieces are all present, but the overall picture feels fragmented.

Actor Seth Compton's dramatic arc in the role of Crown Prince Hal, destined for greatness in Shakespeare's sequel "Henry V," is surprisingly uninspiring. It was the Bard's seeming intention to have us witness Hal's social and military maturing. Still, his interactions with the bawdy John Falstaff, played with spluttering flair by Barry Lynch, lack the playfulness necessary to contrast his later scenes as a royal leader.

Conversely, there is Josh Thoemke's portrayal of a rebellious knight aptly named Hotspur, renowned for his scorching temper. Simmering, well-placed eruptions of anger would have been engaging, but Thoemke holds virtually nothing in reserve. His constant railing and frantic physicality make him seem more like a petulant child instead of a man whose brains are balanced by his brawn.

As with most of Shakespeare's historical plays, this one careens toward a battlefield conclusion. Unfortunately, the inevitable combat between Hal and Hotspur winds up feeling anticlimactic. Where Director Sean Branney's casting does shine is in the supporting roles. Jason Tendell's turn as Poins, a tavern buddy who engages Hal in a sly trick designed to embarrass the narcissistic Falstaff, is deliciously playful. Meanwhile, Matt Foyer's depiction of Hotspur's uncle, Thomas Percy, the Earl of Worcester, is the perfect mix of restrained duplicity. With a subtle look or gesture, Foyer conveys disgust for his nephew's uncontrollable irritability while furthering his cunning plan to unseat the king.

Set in the early 15th century, the story involves a rebellion by former Welsh and Scottish allies against the title character, who himself had deposed Richard II. In the title role, Andrew Leman, along with other members of his royal court, suffer early on from a collective case of speed talking. Fortunately, everyone settles into Shakespeare's dialogue as the show progresses. Additionally, Leman along with Dan Harper as Douglas, the famed Scots warrior, share the most impressive display of Brian Danner's excellent fight choreography.

Technically, the show is lush and the multitudes of scene changes are executed with well-rehearsed brevity. Laura Brody's costumes, other than Falstaff's somewhat ill-fitting fat suit, are beautifully rendered. Mary O'Sullivan's lighting enhances Dutch Neusmyth's hand-hewn throne and scenic designer Arthur MacBride's full-size map of Great Britain painted on the stage floor. Troy Sterling Nies' original musical compositions set a regal tone for the proceedings, which, despite its shortcomings, should, for the most part, satisfy any fan of the Bard.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neil for News-Press

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