If site-based theater truly is the means of attracting younger audiences to the medium, the way by which the constraints of a traditional stage are exploded, then bravo! Bravo too, to San Diego Rep artist-in-residence Hebert Siguenza’s dystopian adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One. El Henry, as it is called, is a La Jolla Playhouse Without Walls (WoW) series production, presented in association with the Rep. The latter’s artistic director, Sam Woodhouse, directs the play, which unfolds at the outdoor SILO space at downtown’s Makers Quarter, 15th and F across the street from the former Jerome’s warehouse. Siguenza not only wrote this adventurous work, which mingles The Bard with “Mad Max” imagery and low-rider cars, but portrays a roly-poly Fausto, a wise-ass take on Shakespeare’s beloved comic foil Falstaff. In the roles of opposing barrio warrior princes are the sons of playwright Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit), Lakin and Kinan.
El Henry depicts a San Diego of the year 2045 in which all whites have fled, drinking water is gold and the renamed Aztlan City is inhabited only by Chicanos, Mexicans and Hispanics. The ruling El Hank (John Padilla) is facing imprisonment over a false charge and fears that his barrio kingdom will be usurped by rival El Tomas (Victor C. Contreras) and his blood-thirsty son El Bravo (Kinan Valdez). Hank’s partying son El Henry (Lakin Valdez) wants none of the conflict, preferring to carouse with his drinking and thieving pals, which include Fausto. But an Act 2-opening summit with his father (one that’s too conveniently resolved, frankly), turns El Henry around, setting the stage for a fierce street war that culminates with the warrior princes going mano-a-mano.
The El Henry story is only half as riveting as the setting and staging of the production. The audience, seated either in plastic chairs or on hard-on-the-butt bleachers, is immersed in an environment of piled-high crates, TV screens, a broken-down truck, and worn fences. The “floor” is dirt. A huge young cast in warrior armor, masks, even Day of the Dead wear, lights up the SILO space with incredible energy. This is inspired theater that crosses borders and shatters barriers.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat