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'Henry IV' review: All-female cast delivers vigorous Bard rendition

Clare Dunne stars as Prince Hal in

Clare Dunne stars as Prince Hal in "Henry IV." Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks

What if season four of "Orange is the New Black" revolved around a production of a Shakespearean history play performed by the inmates?

St. Ann's Warehouse, a bastion of experimental theater in downtown Brooklyn, is opening its big new space at the Tobacco Warehouse in Brooklyn Bridge Park with Phyllida Lloyd's all-female, prison-set, environmental staging of "Henry IV," which is a co-production with London's Donmar Warehouse.

Lloyd, best known as the director of the international smash "Mamma Mia!," brought a similarly conceived production of "Julius Caesar" to St. Ann's two years ago, and one more will apparently follow "Henry IV."

Made up of "Henry IV, Part I" plus a few bites of "Henry IV, Part II," it dramatizes the civil unrest in England after King Henry usurps the throne from Richard II, and the coming of age of Henry's son Hal, who goes from drinking in a lowdown pub with his lazy and witty pal Falstaff to becoming the mighty military leader Henry V.

Lloyd never offers a clear explanation for the prison setting. It appears that the women are enacting the play as a kind of educational exercise, although some of it hits the women hard emotionally, which the guards (who are monitoring the event closely) may not have predicted.

Nevertheless, after a while, you just go along with the concept, which brings a rough vigor and punk aesthetic to the familiar drama. It also turns the tables on the Elizabethan tradition of all-male troupes performing Shakespeare.

Harriet Walter, who led "Julius Caesar" as Brutus, makes for a poised, sad-looking King Henry, while a headphones-wearing Clare Dunne mixes Hal's youthful vigor with self-assurance. Jade Anouka is great as the rebel Hotspur, full of physical activity. Sophie Stanton underplays the typically boisterous Falstaff, but she makes the play's final moment unusually alarming.

Be forewarned that it runs two hours and 15 minutes with no intermission, which is asking a lot from theatergoers accustomed to bathroom breaks.

If you go: "Henry IV" plays at St. Ann's Warehouse through Dec. 6. 45 Water St., stannswarehouse.org.

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