Big, brawny, and macho, El Henry, the Without Walls collaboration between the La Jolla Playhouse and the San Diego REPertory Theatre, has marched, rumbled, and cruised its way into the Makers Quarter district of San Diego’s East Village. It’s a bravura spectacle, but its run is a short one – only until June 29.
Based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, with a little bit of Part 2 thrown in, El Henry is set in downtown Aztlan City (formerly San Diego) in 2045. The area had long ago been overrun by hoards of immigrants, who stormed the border, knocking down fences and defenses in their wake. The gringos had fled as the invasion advanced, leaving behind much that has been consigned to junk heaps. There’s also a few things that have been lovingly cared for instead.
Most of it is junk, though, including the trash talk that rival familias fling at each other in Spanglish, the language of the Chicanos (the Hispanics are another matter altogether: they speak English, wear clothes – by Jennifer Brawn Gittings – influenced by The West Wing, as opposed to the Mad Max styles that predominate the barrio look, and like to quote Ronald Reagan). Yes, despite being 2045 there is a lot of 2014 slang and cultural references that date back further. One character is named Locos R Us, while another is named the Duke of Earl. If you got both of those references you are most assuredly hip enough to like this show. If you got them but rolled your eyes, you might need some encouragement to stay for Act 2 (but do so, because it’s worth it). If all of this confuses you, or if, more likely, a little of it goes a long way, you might not make it past intermission.
Having a basic understanding of Shakespeare’s Henry plays will help, but it only needs to be basic. Henry IV is king of England, and he’s faced with rival factions in his court. He’s also got a problem with his son and heir, also named Henry. The younger Henry has rejected court life and has taken up with low lifes, in particular an errant knight named John Falstaff. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s great characters, perhaps his greatest. He’s a philosopher, a rogue, and a comic object of ridicule, all rolled up into one oversized package. To Falstaff’s credit, though, he helps young Henry to sew his wild oats and philosophically goes through the heartache of the young prince’s eventual rejection of him to unite his country and take up arms against France as King Henry V.
In Herbert Siguenza’s adaptation, Henry IV is El Hank (John Padilla), the young prince is El Henry (Lakin Valdez), and the leader of the break-away gang is El Bravo (Kinan Valdez). Mr. Siguenza plays Fausto, the Falstaff role, and a company of ten other performers play the rest of the colorful characters. The play goes pretty much the way Shakespeare planned it. Act 1 sets up the story and contains a lot of talk. In Act 2, the conflict comes to a head, and the battle scenes (ably directed by Edgar Landa), come one after another.
Sam Woodhouse, the REP’s artistic director, oversaw the assembling of a suitable playing space on a lot at the corner of 15th and F Streets. His technical team, including Ian Wallace on scenic and projection design, Jennifer Setlow on lighting design, and the aforementioned Ms. Gittings, assisted ably by Missy Bradstreet’s wig design, worked magic, the level of which may not be appreciated completely by audiences. I should single out Bruno Louchouarn’s original music and sound design, which allowed the actors to come through loud and clear while still blending in the street noises with the planned sound. [php snippet=1]Working with a strong company – including two princes of this sort of theatre, the Valdez brothers, who are now artistic leaders at El Teatro Campasino in San Juan Bautista – Mr. Woodhouse took advantage of the large playing space, allowing his actors to play con gusto without going over the top (the bravura part). They also popped up from everywhere and handled everything from intimate moments (not very many of those) to big battles (lots of those) with ease (hence, the spectacle part).
As Fausto, Mr. Siguenza shamelessly stole every scene he was in, but then a good Falstaff always does that.
All of this goes away after next weekend, and tickets are inexpensive to encourage a variety of potential audience members to give it a try. As audience popularity shows, Shakespeare works really well when played outdoors in the summer. If Mr. Siguenza’s adaptation of Henry IV sounds interesting to you, I predict that you’ll enjoy the experience.