NEW YORK — 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.
Then too, not all of the production's visual surprises depend on 1990s anachronisms. Nothing is more powerful than the way the tavern scenes of Part I - rowdy and colorful, like Bruegel paintings - acquire an appearance of bleached-out despair in Part II that gives the Elizabethan scene a hint of ``Marat/Sade'' atmosphere.
Most of the production's key performances are strong enough, moreover, to anchor the plays in solid Shakespearean granite.
In the title role, the versatile Larry Bryggman has a dignity and suppleness of spirit that elevates every scene he appears in.
Others begin their portrayals less firmly but grow in stature as the plays proceed: They include Thomas Gibson as Prince Hal and Louis Zorich as Falstaff, whose shaky start (as just another chubby clown) turns into a nuanced and affecting portrait. Jared Harris's fiery Hotspur provides Part I with its most vivid character, although his Pistol is more explosive than persuasive in the second play.
Among standouts in the supporting cast are Richard Russell Ramos as the Lord Chief Justice, David J. Steinberg and David Manis as Falstaff's dissolute friends, Lisa Gay Hamilton as Kate, William Duell as Shallow, and Ruth Maleczech as Mistress Quickly.
AKALAITIS, recently installed as Joseph Papp's artistic associate at the Shakespeare Festival, is usually associated with the avant-garde explorations of the Mabou Mines troupe and with her stagings of profoundly modern plays by Samuel Beckett and Franz Xaver Kroetz, among others.
Postmodern or not, her ``Henry IV'' demonstrates that her Shakespeare skills remain sharp and consistent, and that her ability to guide performers is as strong as her instinct for strong visual effects.
Spiced with energetic music by Philip Glass, the plays - among the high points in the festival's six-year Shakespeare Marathon, still going strong - continue through March 31 at the Public/Newman Theater.