“The Mistorical Hystery of Henry (I)V,” the aggressively dingy extravaganza that’s being performed with a lively sneer by WSC Avant Bard, is beyond a Shakespearean mash-up. It’s a pileup: Adaptor-director Tom Mallan combines “Richard II,” both parts of “Henry IV” and “Henry V” to create a long burlesque of power. Mallan’s bottom line is that if the playboy Prince Hal is going to embrace war as he becomes the triumphal King Henry V, this show can’t embrace him.
If any city can add brave riffs on Shakespeare to the menu, it’s Washington, where one “Othello” just closed and another carries on. Mallan’s show is certainly a big twist; it’s largely delivered cabaret-style in a World War I-era beer hall by angry floozies, with newsreel footage projected on a sheet above the scuzzily lighted stage. In Artisphere’s intimate black box theater, the cast feels huge, stomping on tabletops, singing lustily and playing wheezy instruments like derelicts on a Tom Waits kick.
The mocking style and fight-the-power argument do wear thin, though, long before this nearly three-hour adventure downshifts from giddy lampoon to its brutal finish. It’s likely that this ambitious experiment will appeal mainly to “Henry IV” buffs prepared to track Mallan’s changes and/or folks who like their Bard upended.
What such audiences will find is a disciplined ramshackle performance that tumbles drunkenly across Tobias Harding’s rustic tavern set. A lot of this show is powered by the pub’s women, dubbed the Harlotry Players of Eastcheap, who send up the country’s powerful men in skits performed for the customers. Kari Ginsburg is an effectively rowdy ringleader as Doll Tearsheet (who frequently plays Hal’s father, King Henry IV), with Cam Magee doing equally feisty work as Mistress Quickly (who impersonates both Richard II and Northumberland).
The songs and satire are high-spirited, changing to a slightly more sober key as Prince Hal moves to center stage. Dressed in top hat and tails, Jay Hardee’s Hal looks like a Cole Porter figure in a sinister Brechtian world, an effect that’s emphasized when the tavern’s denizens teasingly croon the nation’s question: “Where is Hal?” Hal, in fact, is slumming with his hands perpetually on the bum of his roustabout pal (here lover), Poins, and bantering with that fat loafer Falstaff.
The famous set pieces between Hal and Falstaff are reasonably rewarding, with Hardee and Christopher Henley (jovial and guttural as the corpulent coward) smartly bringing out the notions of right rule in their byplay. But the sarcastic tone of the show gradually makes you appreciate how much easier it is to play at something than it is to genuinely play it; the performance begins to feel facile. And when Mallan denies Hardee’s Hal any real political awakening and steers him into a petulant power grab, it’s not entirely persuasive, and the show hits the doldrums.
Even so, the impulse is honorable. Hal’s violent reversal is especially cruel to a transvestite character here, and the new regime is quite rough on women. That makes Mallan’s show a serious romp, entertaining to a point, but too much to buy into in the end.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by William Shakespeare, adapted and directed by Tom Mallan. Composer, Raymond Bokhour; lights, Alex F. Keen; costumes, Rhonda Key and Lynly A. Saunders. With Sara Barker, Anna Brungardt, Mickey Daniel DaGuiso, Ashley DeMain, James Finley, William Hayes, Connor J. Hogan, Melissa B. Robinson, Sarah Olmsted Thomas, Sun King Davis, Frank Britton, Joe Cronin, Kim Curtis, Tony Greenburg, Carl Brandt Long, Josh Speerstra, Tim Caron, Michael Greenan and Samuel Taylor. About 21 / 2 hours. Through Dec. 4 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. wscavantbard.org or 888-841-2787.