(This review of the The Flower of England’s Face, now showing at the UW Penthouse Theatre, was written by Seth Halleran of the UW News Lab)
He cranes his arm back then flicks it forward, launching his whip, snapping through the air near inches from his foe.
The Earl of Douglas, leader of the Scottish rebels, pulls his whip back again, this time using it to snatch King Henry IV’s wooden sword from the ground at his feet.
Though he lacks a kilt, the Earl instead wears a tartan patterned sash and headband, wielding a long wooden pole in addition to his whip, like some kind of tattooed Scottish ninja.
Adapted by Reginald André Jackson and directed by Robin Lynn Smith, Freehold Theatre’s The Flower of England’s Face places the Shakespearean classic, Henry IV, in the mid-20th Century.
With leather bomber jackets, black cloaks, gypsy dresses, rasta beanies, and royalty style army uniforms, this eccentric adaptation is at risk to clash with itself.
Splendidly, it doesn’t.
The intimate, interactive theater experience feels a bit like what Quentin Tarantino might do with an Indiana Jones script written in Shakespearean prose.
The set consists of a metal catwalk, some wooden blocks, a set of wooden stairs (built into the seats), and a large purple, gold, and turquoise tapestry on the ground.
All of this is placed in the University of Washington’s Penthouse Theater, the first theater-in-the-round built in the United States.
Henry IV is generally split into 3 parts: Richard II, and Henry IV parts 1 and 2.
“Rather than only staging Shakespeare’s part 1, we opted to explore the full arc of many of these characters, which meant also delving into part 2,” says Jackson. “But what truly got my blood flowing was the idea of exploring Richard II, as well.“
The play opens with a crowd of men and women in long black cloaks, some sporting red scimitar blades at their sides. The snared beating of a cajón drum accompanies them as they fan out across the stage, remaining stiff.
“There’s this range of characters from every class and every age,” says Smith, “and I think it’s kind of brilliantly laid out by Shakespeare in terms of trying to figure out who you are in the middle of an uncertain situation.”
The audience accompanies these two as they are thrust into a civil war, caused by King Henry IV’s murder of Richard II, who later comes back to haunt the tormented King.
Much of the backstory included in Richard II is seen in flashbacks playfully presented on a projector.
Those worried about keeping track of the plethora of characters need not worry. Audiences can pick up a study guide along with a program, featuring a character list and background information to help set the stage.
This study guide, produced by Lucinda Stroud, comes as a feature of Freehold’s Engaged Theatre Program which has taken the performance to a variety of places in the Seattle area, including prisons and psychiatric hospitals.
The score, composed and performed by Gino Yevdjevich, is also about variety.
In one scene there’s wailing, Middle Eastern inspired vocals and in the next there’s spaghetti western guitar picking.
“Shakespeare’s so cool because you can really do whatever you want with it musically,” says Yevdjevich.
And when you realize that Shakespearean prose accompanied by jazz bongos sounds eerily like spoken word, you see that he’s right.
Cast across race and gender lines, the play features at least one female actress playing a male character in an ironic salute to the castrato actors of yore.
Many scenes involve a good deal of interactivity. In one scene I was offered a ring to purchase. In another, I was given the pleasure of shaking the newly crowned King’s hand.
Shakespeare wrote for the common man. This performance is a testament to that. It’s humble and weird. Uproariously hilarious at points, touchingly sincere at others.
“There’s a kernel of something that’s trying to be more true in these people,” says Smith, “and that’s a wonderful core to the population that Shakespeare wrote about.”
Freehold’s The Flower of England’s Face plays July 12th – 20th at the University of Washington’s Penthouse Theater. Tickets are Pay-What-You-Can and can be purchased online or at the door.