The cast of 'Henry IV Parts 1 and 2' rehearses in advance of the play's Aug. 2 opening at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.
LENOX, Mass. — At Shakespeare & Company, they take the "& Company" part seriously.
As devoted as they are to the plays of William Shakespeare, they are not afraid to take liberties with his work, to be collaborators as much as disciples.
S&Co. veteran Jonathan Epstein takes some major liberties with not one but two Shakespeare histories with a production of "Henry IV Parts 1 and 2," which opens Saturday, Aug. 2, on the festival's main stage.
Though "Herny IV, Part 2" is clearly a sequel to Part 1, each play was written to stand on its own and is generally performed that way -- although frequently in repertory.
The problem, Epstein noted earlier this summer, is that Part 2 rarely is staged at all.
"If you get a chance to do 'Henry IV, Part 2,' you grab it because you're not going to get another chance," Epstein said earlier this summer. "There are other plays like that. 'Henry VIII,' nobody does. They did it in Boston this year. Tina [Packer] directed it.
"This is one of the ones that if you're a Shakespeare player and you have a chance to do it, you grab it. ... This is only my second 'Henry IV, Part 2.' The last one was 30 years ago ... in New York City."
And the show has never been performed at Shakespeare & Company, said Epstein, who has been in Lenox for 22 seasons.
He played Falstaff in a 1997 production of "Henry IV, Part 1" on S&Co.'s main stage (now called the Tina Packer Playhouse). In that production, Malcolm Ingram played Henry IV. This summer, their roles are reversed with Ingram playing Falstaff and Epstein stepping in to play the aging king to Henry Clarke's Hal.
Clarke and Epstein took a break during an early July rehearsal to talk about the production.
In addition to adapting the play and playing one of the leads, Epstein also directs, and in that capacity, he chose to move the production from period dress to modern dress and vice versa.
"A guy might put down a sword and pick up a sell phone, put down the cell phone and pick up a gun, and so forth," Epstein said.
He does not want the time-shifting to be a distraction to the performance, and he does not want the audience to try to "decode" the sequence, but Epstein said his choices are not completely random.
"There's nothing tricky about time and place being flexible," Clarke said. "Jon is not a tricky guy. He's not a tricky director. I don't think audiences will have to struggle to keep up. I think the audience will delight in being swept along.
"There's nothing they're going to miss. There's no code. There's no trickery to it. It's just looking for the richest circumstances to get at these ideas, looking for the right time and place to contain these big, as Jonny said, timeless, human musings."
And Epstein said Shakespeare is the perfect playwright with whom to take such leaps.
"Shakespeare is intrinsically anachronistic," he said. "There are pictures of Shakespeare's company dressed in doublet and hose with a toga over it, and no one thought there was anything weird about that. It wasn't until the 19th century that people started trying to tell the stories in the period clothes.
"If you look at the 19th century pictures of productions of 'Macbeth,' you'll see some pretty damn humorous depictions of Scottish clothes. They don't look like anything a Scotsman would ever wear."
While Epstein has been a mainstay at Shakespeare & Company for more than two decades, Clarke returns for his second stint after performing at the South County venue from 1998-2002.
"I've been asking myself, what makes a Shakespeare & Company play unique and what does it ask of me that isn't asked at every other job," Clarke said. "And the thing I sort of keep returning to is the tremendous openness of heart and the tremendous generosity of spirit and soul toward the audience.
"The events of this play are profound and personal and universal enough that when we can create them with that audience there, we can really get at some big and timeless emotions."
And the adaptation of the two "Henrys" allows the artists to expose audiences to characters and stories that they do not often get to see. Epstein hopes the adaptation has an afterlife beyond this summer's run. He plans to publish the adaptation, which can be staged with a dozen actors and allows other theater companies to explore the "very rich" text of "Henry IV, Part 2" without doing a full production.
"It's interesting that Part 2, although less active, I find much more moving than Part 1," Epstein said. "Part 1 is full of excitement. Part 2 has moments of extreme poignancy.
"If you want to see Part 2, you better come to this because nobody does Part 2. Certainly nobody does Part 2 without Part 1. ... That's six and a half hours of theater. Here, you get both parts in under three."
Clarke notes that in Shakepeare's day, that six hours might have been more reasonable to ask of an audience.
"It's easy to forget that in his time, he was incredibly popular," Clarke said. "He was mass entertainment, and people wanted it to go on for a long time. One thing this adaptation does extremely well is return this material to something that is accessible like that.
"And hopefully it's an exciting night that pings the entertainment button."