English Plays, American Politics

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

New York has historically been the place where theatrical works open-and then if successful, they eventually make their way west. But this month, the most talked about show in New York originated here on the West Coast.

By now, most people who follow theater have heard of the soon-to-be legendary production of Shakespeare-s HENRY IV currently running at Lincoln Center. But what many may not know is that this production got its start in San Diego.

The show combines both HENRY IV Part One and Two into a single evening and the man responsible for this adaptation is Dakin Matthews. When it was first seen in San Diego eight years ago, the title character of Henry was performed by the same actor playing it now in New York, Richard Easton. However, it didn-t star Kevin Kline as Falstaff and Ethan Hawke as Hotspur, so naturally it didn-t get quite the attention its getting now.

Kline-s turn as Sweet Jack will likely be talked about for seasons to come, but after Kline, the most notable performance in the show, interestingly enough, is by Dakin Matthews. Besides adapting the play, Matthews- a veteran actor of regional theater here on the West Coast-also plays the roles of Chief Justice Warwick and Owen Glendower. Both parts are supporting ones, but substantive-and he creates two entirely different characters, each unique in voice, walk and presence.

Of course, the starry cast is the main reason Matthew-s HENRY IV is receiving so much more attention than it did in San Diego, but another reason is of course the play-s politics. Shakespeare-s Henry plays are so universal that they prove to be relevant in just about any political climate, but it is lines 214-217 in HENRY IV PART TWO that are the center of attention these days.

The aging King tells his reckless son who will soon succeed to the throne:

-Therefore, my Harry, be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, May waste the memory of the former days.-

Thankfully, the director of HENRY IV, Jack O-Brien, does not force this (or the plays- other topical bits) to the foreground. O-Brien, Matthews & company wisely let Shakespeare-s words speak for themselves, making the parallels between the Plantagenet and Bush dynasties quiet backstory for an entertaining evening of comedy and drama.

Here in California, two more recent British plays with heavy political themes are being performed together this month. Like Matthews- take on HENRY IV, which started in San Diego; David Edgar-s contemporary double-header CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, is getting its start in Berkeley before moving on to London next year.

CONTINENTAL DIVIDE consists of two plays, MOTHERS AGAINST, a work that looks at Right Wing politics and DAUGHTERS OF THE REVOLUTION which looks at Left Wing politics, or as its main character might say, what remains of them.

Unlike Shakespeare, who used historical figures to comment on his own time, David Edgar creates fictional characters and places them in the immediate present. Fortunately for Edgar, both plays revolve around a contentious California Gubernatorial race-a coincidence that no doubt has boosted interest in these intensely political works. Despite this topicality, however, both of Edgar-s plays feel less than immediate. Both works are ripped from the headlines, well researched, and expertly connected to each other, but neither possesses the visceral pull of a real political battle.

MOTHER-S AGAINST, which focuses on a Republican candidate who must choose between a campaign that he believes in or one that will get him elected, is the better of the two plays-but even during its best moments, it still feels like a watered-down version of Gore Vidal-s THE BEST MAN.

David Edgar deserves credit for his ambitious attempt to corral California-s political spirit and display it on stage; but given the theatrics currently playing in Sacramento, it would be hard even for Shakespeare to top the current comedy and tragedy that is our current political reality.

HENRY IV runs through January 18th at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. CONTINENTAL DIVIDE concludes its run at the Berkeley Repertory Theater this Sunday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.