‘El Henry’ – A Gangsterization of the Bard
Article by Julie Kendig
How do you think about your use of the English language? For those of you who agree that it is a tool to navigate culture, time, place and self, we are simpatico. Our dearly departed national treasure, Maya Angelou, reminds us that words and language are, in fact, things. They are as real, as tangible, as useful, as harmful, as edifying as any object you can touch. The drapes are like language. They draw back to let in the sunlight and yet can hang in gentle, silent protection when you seek privacy. The road is like language. It supports your feet and designs a path for your travels. Please, dear readers, let me know the ways language is real to you.
I come to you, broadcasting much in the way someone behind a microphone at a radio station does. That is, I don’t know who you are or even if you’re listening, but I am hopeful that those who are on the line with me will criticize or compliment or become enraged or inquire or…in your unique way have a reaction and engage with me.
This message centers around my experience of the brilliant adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV by Herbert Siguenza of Culture Clash in cooperation with La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls series and directed by San Diego REPertory Theatre Artistic Director, Sam Woodhouse.
We all know Shakespeare, right? At times we have been confounded by his Elizabethan speech and other times we are hit like an arrow from beyond our time and place. Lines like, “If sack [wine] and sugar be fault, then god help the wicked!” serve to remind us that despite centuries of metamorphosis of our dialect, there is little doubt Shakespeare has provided billions of people with access to the universal.
And yet we don’t really want to sit through it—Shakespeare in Elizabethan English. It’s complicated and “sophisticated,” and old, and it doesn’t relate to how we manage our daily lives—we are not concerned with whether a play we saw is Shakespearean enough to be authentic. We have fucking groceries to buy (farmer’s market or corner market—they both cost us time and money), and to figure out what percentage of the bill we should tip on, and how to arrange transportation for Tuesday night’s obligation, and…there’s just a lot of stuff to get through that there’s so little reason our thoughts should turn to the reign of a 15th century monarch.
But just you wait. You should, all of you, go see this production. Ha! Where to begin? There’s the setting, which in itself is a meta-experience. Not only has the play’s adaptation chosen to futurize the location into the fictional city, Arslan—where in the mid-21st century 50 million Mexicans fled to on their exodus northward—but Siguenza has masterfully incorporated localities like East Village into the setting and the narrative. He weaves it in ways that validate the various personalities of specific San Diego neighborhoods, and, for the inquiring minds, provoke us to wonder how these neighborhood personalities came to be. Why, for instance, would the vanquished be banished to El Cajon? Is there not beauty enough in those hills to be worthy of praise? Yet it is the badlands in the play and in our real lives the place that is home to an enclave of Iraqi refugees. Now that is cutting humor.
I got kick out of the fat, rich bastard I was sitting next to during the performance who belly chuckled at a joke in the script cracked on Father Joe. While localizing the language makes it accessible, I couldn’t help thinking how utterly ironic and a bit disgusting it was for an audience such as us to be seated in the heart of one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods participating in a high-culture experience (albeit disguised as a toothy, ground-level, gritty, performance). But to each his own, and again this is the kind of satire that unmistakably marks El Henry with Culture Clash’s intellectual, inky signature.
Add to this the casual atmosphere of the venue. You are not in a traditional place for a play to happen. The director used the outdoor setting at the Silo at Maker’s Quarter to its greatest advantage. The play begins during daylight. There is no artificial lighting, so that as the sun sets and the technical qualities of the production kick in, we have already been lured into another realm through the cumbia rhythm of the actor’s characterizations combined with the backstage talents of Jessica Bird and Marike Fitzgerald.
And speaking of characterization, the faint of heart for cultural slurs wouldn’t be able to tolerate some of the artistic choices—the Hispanic tsarina who speaks with an Anglicized accent and wears white face, the demeaning language describing Chicanos as a lazy, pot-smoking group who are chaotic and undisciplined. But you’d be missing the point if you believed the gangsterization of conflict is only a dark-skinned problem.
El Henry is in your face and on your skin. You want it to stay on you the same way you keep the stamp on your wrist from last night’s gig because washing it off would mean it’s somehow shameful. The realness of the language, the whole experience, is a thing. The words are objects. You get to drink Siguenza’s ethos. Go.
Photo: Jim Carmody 2014
Where: SILO, 753 15th St., San Diego
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or https://www.lajollaplayhouse.org/el-henry
Running time: 2 hours