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A CurtainUp Review
Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2
By Elyse Sommer
If Mr. Matthews' consolidation upsets some Bardian purists, no grumbles were voiced when I attended. In fact, I overheard repeated comments from theater goers who'd seen the the much praised Toronto double header to the effect that this production was every bit as satisfying, if not even more so. Without a doubt, it lays to rest all the talk about Americans being unable to match Shakespeare's countrymen in capturing the soul of his characters and doing justice to his language. In short, whatever is missing (Henry IV, Part II is subject to the most trimming), there isn't a smidgen of downsizing here.
Though the program helpfully includes a synopsis, even those unfamiliar with the plot will have no problem in following the dual story of a classic father and son conflict and the battle by the reigning royals against the challenge for the crown from a rebel faction. From the moment King Henry IV (Richard Easton) rises from his royal perch we see a man aware that his crown was unjustly gained and thus especially eager to have a worthy successor. Even as he rebukes young Prince Hal (Michael Hayden) for hanging out with the Sir John Falstaff (Kevin Kline) and his motley crew, a father and son reconciliation is inevitable. The fact that the prince seeks out the company of a man as old as his father adds an yet another dimension to his rebellion -- the search not so much of a hell-raising companion as a loving and approving father.
Easton and Hayden don't miss a nuance of their characters' ambiguity about the rights and duties of kingship and their feelings for each other. Hayden poignantly transforms himself from leather jacketed playboy to ermine robed king -- a king who must not only show himself to be his own man rather than his father's son but also publicly disavow his association with Falstaff (If this calls to mind Bush I and Bush II, that's typical of how Shakespeare strikes new chords every decade or so).
Big (physically and in every other way) and vital as Kline's Falstaff is, he does not make himself the star around whom everything and everyone else turns. Other crucial roles allowed to stand out include: Ethan Hawke and Byron Jennings adding another father-son setup as Henry "Hotspur" Percy and Thomas Percy; Dana Ivey doing double duty as Lady Northumberland and Mistress Quigley; Lorenzo Pisoni as King Henry's son John of Lancaster and Scott Ferrara as Edmund Mortimer. Musical star Audra McDonald brings considerable passion to the relatively minor part of Lady Percy whose defiant "I will not sing " after Anastasia Barzee's beautifully sung lullaby comes across as something of a consciously planted in joke. I could go on, for this is an amply populated stage.
Not the least of the pleasures of this production stem from the inventive stagecraft. When you take your seat you see what looks like a bare stage. The initial glimpse of Ralph Funicello's three-levels of wooden beams promises to put just a little flesh on these seemingly bare bones. But Mr. Funicello is full of highly effective surprises, reconfiguring his set pieces, rolling out a staircase at the top of which sits the throne and props as needed. Two beds -- one for Falstaff's rather ineffectual romp in the hay with Doll Tearsheet (Genevieve Elam as the drolly named Doll doing a great, small turns and one for the king's deathbed scene -- provide director O'Brien with the opportunity for one of his many fine visual statements; in this case, Hal's sitting first on Falstaff's bed, then that of his dying fathers makes its own statement about his shifting allegiance.
The set's adaptability and Brian MacDevitt's masterful lighting fluidly accommodate a variety of locations, including a breathtaking battle scene and the unforgettable split screen image of Hal being crowned at one side of the stage, while the melancholy Falstaff kneels front and center.
Whether at court, in the Eastcheap tavern or on the battlefield, everyone is gorgeously and fittingly attired in Jess Goldstein's costumes. The fabric textures and richness of the palette often make the actors look as if they'd walked out of the framed canvases of the master painting exhibit rooms of the Metropolitan and across town to Lincoln Center.
Kevin Kline will surely be a top contender in the acting category, as will Jack O'Brien for his direction, and the creative team for their major contributions to this play and the art of set, costume and lighting design. While there are no Tonys (or Drama Desk or Outer Critics awards) for dead playwrights, the very much alive Amy Freed's Beard of Avon (Review) is rumored to be transferring from Off to On Broadway, adding a witty spoof about Shakespeare to the Bardian-connected lineup of honorees.
It would be nice if Jack O'Brien's next interlude between blockbuster musicals like Hairspray and his London revival of His Girl Friday would give us his take on Henry V. That's the play in which we find out what kind of a king Hal has become. In the meantime, Lincoln Center is following this triumph with a much anticipated King Lear. .
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