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Theatre director Dustin Britt could have advised Scrap Paper Shakespeare about the rewards – and hazards – of staging Shakespeare in close proximity to drinking establishments. When his two productions of ShakesBEER for Bare Theatre played a constellation of nine bars and breweries across the Triangle in 2017 and 2018, its stalwart cast earned their badge of courage contending with cavernous acoustics, heckling bikers, insuperable sound systems, and a phalanx of drunks and disorderlies, playing an assortment of Shakespearean sots before audiences sometimes in similar condition.
Take Shakespeare into a bar around here and you take on all comers. Unless a pub is absolutely empty, the show's already started before you got there.
But the main interference director Emma Szuba's cast encountered last Friday night on the upstairs patio outside Durham's Gizmo Brew Works didn't come from the clueless take-out customer who insisted on making a cell phone video while actors tried to pass by him in costume.
The weather tried to do them in instead. Though Scrap Paper was performing Prince Hal, their version of Shakespeare's Henriad, the cold front passing through Durham at the time insisted on The Tempest instead. Temperatures plummeted, rain poured, thunder boomed, and winds blew detritus and empty beer cans across the stage and glassware off tables to shatter on the floor.
Yes, it was kind of hard for the rattled cast of seven and their rattled audience to keep focus through all that, and it took several scenes for both to find their footing.
But wait a minute. Editing Shakespeare's Henriad – Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V – into a single evening, and then staging it with only seven actors – one of whom only plays the errant and then noble Henry V? Those profoundly difficult tasks qualify Prince Hal as the most audacious (if not foolhardy) theatrical enterprise of 2023. The last company who would have dared such theatrical odds – and then begin to have the artistic wherewithal to pull it off – was the Somnambulist Project, a group of theatricals and musicians from Michigan State who colonized here in the 1990s, and whose notable artistic progeny included Shakespeare and Originals, Curtis Eller's American Circus, and Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Indeed, Michael Foley, who plays Falstaff with amusing, boozy bluster, was a later veteran of those companies, and seems right at home here.
Szuba's crew mixed irreverence in costuming and approach with precision work on lines and subtext, marred by occasional line difficulties the night I saw it.
Shaun Schneider brought mischievous energy and a believable through line as the evolving Prince Hal. The rest of the ensemble got quite the workout in Szuba's adaptation. Abbe Fralix was steely as Henry IV, and later laughable as Ancient Pistol; Naima Said's hapless Bardolph, the barfly, contrasted with takes on various functionaries and villains before her turn as the baffled, beguiled Katherine, Henry V's future bride. Rebecca Ashley Jones, no stranger to innovative Shakespearean productions herself, gave a rustic note to Mistress Quickly and the bloviating Fluellen. Newcomer Jaye Bullock acquitted well as Richard II and the mischievous Poins, and Miranda Curtis brought the heat as Henry's nemesis, Hotspur.
While it's good for an ambitious company to set goals as imposing as these, ultimately, the play's still the thing.
The audience dwindled noticeably through the show's three hours and ten minutes, particularly after intermission, as Henry V devolved into a miscalculated burlesque of cheesy French accents and lengthy, patience-challenging addresses, as a septet of noble actors expended kilocalories, propelling the work ever onward, in costumes ill-suited for the weather.
The night I saw it, Prince Hal was something of a step back from the triumphs of their recent Arms and the Man and As You Like It. Still, when a company's growing, its reach sometimes exceeds its grasp. For all its work-still-in-progress, Prince Hal boasts a fearlessness in exploring everything but the same old same old, and most of the skills needed to realize the company's different vision. I can't wait to see the next, equally unexpected step in Scrap Paper's evolution.
Prince Hal continues at various breweries around the Triangle through Sunday, November 5. For more details, please view the sidebar.