On the strength of Lawrence Bommer's glowing review of Henry IV at the Folio Theatre in a recent edition of the Reader [February 4], my husband and I made the effort to see it. After surviving the experience, I cannot help but wonder if we saw the same production of the same play as did Mr. Bommer. Mr. Bommer's review called this production "powerfully crafted, well paced, and riding a flood of intelligent energy." He ignores the embarrassingly bad costumes, the inept staging, and the fact that the director has allowed several of the actors to scream as if they were performing on a football field instead of in a very small theater. However, it is a good thing that Mr. Bommer recapped the entire plot in his review because the audience could never have followed the story simply by watching this production.
Mr. Bommer's review also takes the Goodman's production of Richard II to task with the pithy update of the adage that "it's the acting, stupid." Obviously, the acting is important. I am astonished that Mr. Bommer could construe the dreadful acting of most of the principal and all of the minor characters as anything close to adequate, much less good. If Mr. Bommer feels that the acting is so very important, why did he not mention such details as the actors playing Hotspur and Falstaff shout every one of their lines at the audience, indeed, that all the male characters shout to excess at some point? Mr. Bommer, this is not good acting, this is amateur indulgence at its worst. Hotspur was so obnoxiously loud that, after a certain point, I had to stop listening to him in order to preserve my sanity. We made the mistake of sitting in the front row for the first act (I wanted to leave at the intermission, but my husband refused) so we could not escape Hotspur's incessant shouting at the audience. What was the director thinking when he allowed Hotspur to scream so? This incompetent director also missed one of the important points in the play--that Hotspur (along with being hot-tempered) is also likeable, smart, and charming. Thus, not only does King Henry like Hotspur in spite of himself, but so does the audience. As he is played in Folio's production, the audience not only does not like Hotspur, we can't wait for him to get killed so he will quit shouting. Naturally, Prince Hal (who shouts only a few of his lines) seems a paragon of humor and charm, if only by default. Mr. Bommer's review further stated that the actor playing the title role of Henry IV layered it "with the defensive dignity of an insecure monarch, mightily browbeating his prodigal son." Maybe he did indeed, but every line he delivered sounded like the previous one, making his scenes so boring to watch, that I (and the rest of the audience) soon lost interest.
It is not only the male characters who were so poorly portrayed in Folio's Henry IV; the women were equally unfortunate. Frankly, I have seen better acting from an inexperienced and untalented high school student than the caliber displayed by the woman playing Mistress Quickly. The woman playing Hotspur's wife was so petulant and whined so much that we didn't want to watch her, we wanted to slap her. No wonder the excessively loud Hotspur liked his horse better--who would not? There must be better actresses available in Chicago than these two, because if they are an example of the best actresses available for these roles, then perhaps the women's roles should have been played by young boys as in Shakespeare's time, even using puppets would have been better than the lousy performances offered by these two. Perhaps Folio should not have attempted Shakespeare at all, but instead should have presented a Sam Shepard play. At least with something contemporary, it might have been within Folio's limited abilities.
From surviving this painful theatergoing experience, we learned never to believe a review by Mr. Bommer. In the future, we will make a point to see the productions he negatively reviews.