When one reads Shakespeare’s history plays, the soundtrack that comes to mind usually isn’t David Bowie. Yet in the Hidden Room’s new production of “Henry IV,” playing through Oct. 1 at the York Rite Masonic Hall, glam rock seems as natural to the play as the traditional corsets and doublets. Director Beth Burns and costume designer Aaron Flynn eschew those classic Shakespearean garments in favor of a ’70s glam rock aesthetic, complete with makeup to match (styled by Amelia Turner) and live music from Todd Kassens of the band Shoulders.
All this is done to draw parallels between the delinquency of the young Prince Hal (aka Henry, Prince of Wales, and son to the titular King Henry IV) and the party-hard decadence of rock stars in the “Me Decade,” a conceit that works remarkably well, bringing new life to the oft-performed Shakespeare classic.
Despite the play’s title, the protagonist of “Henry IV” is Prince Hal, who over the course of the production goes from being a wastrel to a warrior, proving his worth as successor to the throne. Though only together in a few scenes, Rommel Sulit, as Henry, and Brock England, as Prince Hal, solidly create the father-son tension that is at the heart of Hal’s growth.
As with many productions of the play, though, the scene-stealing comes from Sir John Falstaff, an aging, portly, drunken knight who is constantly scheming how to obtain wine, women and wealth. Played with great sympathy by Robert Matney, Falstaff never oversteps the boundary between being charmingly corrupt and obnoxiously base, which can be a hard line to straddle for many actors taking on the role.
Also of note in this production are Judd Farris, as Henry Percy, the attractively and demoniacally desperate leader of a group of rebels against the throne (all ingeniously clad in death-metal black leather); Kassens, melding his live music with a hilarious burnt-out hippie intonation as Falstaff’s compatriot Bardolph; and Isto Barton as both the feral Scots rebel Archibald, Earl of Douglas, and Hal’s friend and co-schemer, Poins. Barton, in particular, has a great facility in bringing a modern cadence to the classical text.
Many (and perhaps even most) attempts to modernize Shakespeare fall flat, either by merely providing scenic trappings that ultimately have no bearing on the tone of the production or by going too far in the alternate direction and completely eschewing the lyricism of the text. The Hidden Room’s “Henry IV” is that rare production that gets the balance just right, providing an accessible entry into one of Shakespeare’s most popular history plays for English majors and laymen alike.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 1.
Where: York Rite Masonic Hall, 311 W. Seventh St.