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THEATER REVIEW / OJAI SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL : Branching Out : The Bard-loving troupe is producing two plays this summer at Libbey Park: a history and a comedy.

August 13, 1992|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In the 10th season of its current incarnation, the Ojai Shakespeare Festival is expanding ambitiously. This year, instead of producing one play for the summer, the group is mounting two. And instead of guaranteed draws like "The Merchant of Venice" or "Macbeth" (to name the past two seasons' entries), the group is presenting a history as its mainstage production and a comedy on the weekends.

"Henry IV, Part One" is being performed Friday through Sunday evenings inside Ojai's Libbey Bowl. On the Libbey Park grass, weekend afternoons, is the festival's production of the comedy "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." Both shows, directed by Paul Backer, end their runs Aug. 23.

The histories are not traditionally Shakespeare's most revered plays--at least among general audiences--and it's doubtful that most Americans have any clear idea of Henry IV's place in British history.

The two central characters in "Henry IV, Part One" are Henry's son, Prince Hal, and the young warrior Harry Percy, nicknamed "Hotspur." While Hotspur is organizing a revolution against Henry, Prince Hal is whiling his time away in a local pub, drinking and wenching.

Hal's main companion, Sir John Falstaff, is one of Shakespeare's most beloved characters and prominent in this "Henry." An overweight, braggadocio who is never more than an arm's length from a drink, Falstaff remains engaging and somewhat of a role model to young Hal. He also provides much of the comic relief in "Henry IV, Part One."

Will Prince Hal mature in time to leave the Boar's Head Tavern and quash the revolution? Even if he does, will he become the kind of man who will be a wise and just ruler?

And, more to the immediate interest, is the troupe of Ojai thespians, most of them amateurs, up to the task of keeping an audience interested in all this for 3 1/2 hours?

Just keep in mind the advice given by one member of Saturday night's crowd to another: "It's like opera--if you don't know what's happening, it doesn't make any sense." The producers have kindly provided a synopsis and considerable background material, recommended reading before and after seeing the show.

The strong production is led by Justin Mitchell as Prince Hal and Keith Harrop as Hotspur, and features Alan Blumenfeld as Falstaff.

One of the pleasures of "Henry" is that Hotspur, ostensibly the bad guy, is portrayed as a worthy fellow in his own right: a bold and intelligent warrior with a sense of humor.

The afternoon show is Shakespeare's early comedy "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," camped up by Backer and his cast even beyond Shakespeare's broad original. Jack Halpin and Hugh McManigal star as the titular characters; Jaye Hersh and Brook Adams as the objects of their respective desires.

One of the women impersonates a man, there is a trio of saucy servants, three outlaws who seem to have wandered in from a vaudeville production, and "Crab," a comic dog.

The group isn't terrifically respectful to the Bard (injecting along the way one of the few cliches he didn't invent, "Why you, I outta . . .") and a few of the players seem more interested in keeping their pentameter straight than in conveying meaning in the lines.

Still, the production is loud, rowdy and loads of fun; a perfect weekend afternoon's entertainment. Both shows are well-suited to family audiences, although they'd probably be wasted on anyone younger than junior high school age.

The group's resident Measure for Measure Renaissance Minstrels contribute mightily to the plays, and to pre-show entertainment on the green that also has included jugglers and combat exhibitions.

* WHERE AND WHEN

"Henry IV, Part One" plays Friday through Sunday evenings at 7:30; "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" is performed Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1 p.m. Both plays continue through Aug. 23 at Libbey Park, Ojai Avenue in Ojai. General admission tickets for "Henry IV" are $12 on Friday and Sunday, with a $2 discount for students and seniors, and $15 on Saturday with a $3 discount for students and seniors. All adult tickets for "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" are $8, or $7 for students and seniors. For reservations or further information, call 646-9455.

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