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Postmodern `Henry IV'

The acting is anchored in solid Shakepearean tradition

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Some people have suggested that the term ``postmodern'' simply means ``anything goes,'' and those words come close to describing JoAnne Akalaitis's new production of ``Henry IV, Parts I and II'' at the New York Shakespeare Festival. In most respects, Ms. Akalaitis presents the plays in fairly traditional fashion.

Kings, aristocrats, peasants, and rogues wear the historical costumes and speak with the measured inflections that Shakespeareans have long regarded as correct.

Always an experimenter, though, Akalaitis rarely approaches a theatrical tradition without putting her distinctive mark on it. So when Ned Poins returns to Mistress Quickly's tavern after a hard day's mischief, he's clutching a television set presumably purloined during one of his escapades.

In a similar vein, Falstaff relaxes on an automobile seat and quaffs a modern patent medicine; business suits occasionally mingle with 15th-century garb; and so forth, with just enough frequency to prevent the plays from settling entirely into their ``proper'' era.

George Tsypin's ingeniously designed set and Jennifer Tipton's expressive lighting (see interview to left) are equally eclectic, blending architectural elements from different periods with slides and even film footage (borrowed from Orson Welles's brilliant ``Chimes at Midnight,'' one of the all-time-great Shakespearean works) into a smoothly flowing continuum that might seem tricky if it didn't enhance the emotions of the plays so effectively.

Some of the production's devices work better than others, and it's tempting to argue that Akalaitis should have gone entirely modern (like Ingmar Bergman in the astonishing ``Hamlet'' he brought to New York a few seasons ago) or simply let the ``Henry IV'' saga rest in its customary centuries-old surroundings.

As the plays proceed, however, the modern-day touches take on a rhythm of their own, punctuating the action with diverting jolts of relevance and humor.

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