When Michelle Hensley decided to add Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 to Ten Thousand Thing’s schedule, she knew it would be more than a routine telling of the tale of the young Prince Hal and his drunken mate, Falstaff.
“It is such a testosterone-laden play that it only has two roles for women,” Hensley says.
To counteract this, Hensley cast all women for her Henry IV, Part 1, which opens to the public today at Open Book. “I’ve done one other all-female Shakespeare, Twelfth Night. It was so cool to see what happens when you have just one gender playing all of the parts. I was excited to see what would happen if we did it with not a comedy, but a history play.”
The first part of Henry IV follows, in part, the adventures of young Prince Hal. He is at a crossroads in his life. On one side is his father and his father’s stolen kingdom. On the other is his drunken friend Falstaff. “I really love the way the play ends. For a lot of people in our audiences, whether they are traditional theater-goers or not, they don’t know what Prince Hal is going to do. I took advantage of that, and had some fun with the ending,” Hensley says.
Hensley brought in Sha Cage to play Prince Hal and Karen Wiese Thompson to play Falstaff.
“Karen Wiese Thompson is the Twin Cities’ finest Shakespearean actress. The way she has of using the language and just finding the comedy in almost every word she says is just fantastic. I believe she was born to play Falstaff,” Hensley says.
The rest of the company takes on multiple roles, which gives them a chance to both play a member of the court and Falstaff’s drunken band.
The director knew she found her Prince Hal after see Cage’s Ivey Award-winning performance in Frank Theatre’s Grounded. “This is her first time with Shakespeare. I love what she is doing,” Hensley says. “Sha has two young boys. When she plays Prince Hal she is channeling her young boys. I can see the youthful, playful part of Prince Hal — the one who really is not sure if he wants to be a rowdy drunken thief or a warrior protecting his father’s crown. I can see the vulnerability and the playfulness.”
Since Ten Thousand Things performs for many non-traditional audiences — and, to be honest, Shakespeare can usually do with some trimming — Hensley has cut about a third of the script for Henry IV, Part 1. All of the story is intact, and the language is untouched. It’s more of a matter of trimming out things like repeated metaphors that read well on the page, but may cause the audience to tune out.
And despite the language barrier, Shakespeare works incredibly well for Ten Thousand Things’ prison audiences. “He wrote knowing people of all classes would be in his audiences. That is something really hard to find from a lot of Western and contemporary playwrights. That gives his plays this resonance and depth. His characters are usually at the extremes of human experience. Those giants questions that he is always wrestling with are where so many people in our audience live,” Hensley says.
IF YOU GO:
Henry IV, Part 1
Friday through November 1
1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 800-838-3006 or visit online.