Shakespeare Gets the Action Treatment

Brian Silliman and Dorothy Abrahams in the 2010 STONC production of H4.

H4 runs in repertory at the Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street from May 25 to June 18.

Shakespeare is a “brilliant training ground for a director,” says Allegra Libonati. “You've got such great material that you know you can't mess it up too much.”

Libonati is about to put that theory to the test by directing an Off-Broadway staging of Henry IV. The production is a remounting of a modern adaptation, titled H4, which she premiered last June in New Canaan's Waveny Park. This time, however, her audience is the discerning Manhattan theater crowd and the pesky New York critics.

Libonati grew up in New Canaan in a theatrical family, so it was perhaps inevitable that she would find her way to the stage. Her mom, Melody, is an actor/director who has starred on Broadway and network television, and who now heads up the Summer Theatre of New Canaan. Her dad, Ed, is in advertising and communications in addition to acting as STONC's executive producer, and her younger brother, Christian, leads the Filament Theatre Ensemble in Chicago.

Libonati discovered a passion for Shakespeare as a college student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. “I had an acting teacher named Louis Scheeder who unlocked Shakespeare for me,” she recalls. “He had a way of making it very literal, present and immediate.” He also convinced her that it was possible to take a classic text, with language that was somewhat archaic, and have it speak to a modern audience. “You want to make it as alive and demystified as you can,” she insists.

Next, Libonati landed her current job as an artistic associate at American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts, where she assists hotshot experimental director Diane Paulus. Paulus was best known at the time for creating the disco-infused theatrical rave The Donkey Show, which was inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream. She took Libonati along to New York when she was hired to direct the recent Broadway revival of the musical Hair. That experience gave Libonati further insight into how a classic, like H4, can connect with contemporary playgoers.

“Hair was able to tap into 1968 and the world right now,” says Libonati. To bring the two worlds together, the characters invited the audience to join them in the musical's finale, and the stage of the Al Hirschfeld Theatre was often jammed with bodies by the time the show came down. “That's where I learned the audience really wants to be onstage — to be doing it — to be alive in the experience,” she says.

The concept for H4 grew out of the time that Libonati spent staging summertime productions of Shakespeare for her parents at STONC. Several members of her cast for The Taming of the Shrew were the first to suggest that she take a crack at directing Henry IV. The play is, however, actually two plays, Part 1 and Part 2, that chronicle British history from the early 1400s by following the rise of the king's son, Prince Hal, from days of drinking and whoring to his assumption of the throne. So, the drama's length was Libonati's first concern.

“We sat around and read both parts all the way through,” she says. “The whole thing. All day.” Despite that, she found herself intrigued by the central storyline. “It's about how Hal tries to carve his own path in a world of preordained destiny by creating an identity for himself,” she says. And Libonati was drawn to Hal's sidekick, one of Shakespeare's most famous rogues, Sir John Falstaff. “Falstaff lives purely by instinct, follows zero laws and he's proud of that!” she says. “He's the most deplorable human being. But, you're seduced by his tenacity, bravery and indulgence. It's delicious, but also disgusting!”

After that read-through, Libonati and her collaborators, actors Michael Chmiel, Michael Nathanson and Brian Silliman, concluded that the only way Henry IV would make sense to the summer theatergoers at STONC would be if the two parts were condensed into a quickly paced action adventure. “We really streamlined it and cut straight to the most important moments,” she says. As the story was compacted it began to remind them of the television series “24.” So, they used that as their template for the adaptation.

They shifted the action to America, but an America where the Revolutionary War never happened and we're still British subjects. The time was changed to present day so that the play could be staged using modern technology, such as having characters communicate via Skype. Then, the script was paced like a television thriller.

“It all takes place in four days,” says Libonati. “We've got guns and swords and fights and a ticking clock. We start by telling Richard the Second in 30 seconds as ‘previously on H4.' It's all on video – boom, boom, boom! And we end the play with Henry V in 30 seconds.”

Encouraged by last summer's successful run, Libonati showed the script to Rachel Reiner and Eric Parness, the managing and artistic directors of the Resonance Ensemble in New York. The pair were excited by the modern, multimedia concept and committed to producing the show Off-Broadway. Then, they commissioned a companion piece about the creation of Shakespeare's original two-part saga to play in repertory with H4.

When H4 opens in New York on May 25 it will feature four actors from the Waveny staging: Chmiel, Nathanson, Silliman and actress Dorothy Abrahams. But they'll be working with a script that has continued to evolve. “We're still cutting it together,” Libonati reports. “We just love working with this material and making it understandable and fun.”