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A CurtainUp New Jersey Review
Henry IV, Part One
Under the sterling direction of Joseph Discher, the play has the effect of flying by or rather catapulting by. Not an insignificant feat considering that the Bard’s language, the complex history that propels the text and the confluence of so many dynamic events and characters require our most dutiful concentration and focus. I am rather glad that the added complexities that are expanded upon in Part Two have not been attached (as they have often been), although an added hour or two given the excellence of this company would not have been ill-advised.
That the entire production proves to be sheer pleasure from start to finish can be attributed in equal parts to the rousing performances and to the striking design of Jonathan Wentz’s spectacular all wood tiered unit setting: the steep central staircase buttressed on both sides by archways, balconies, wall coves with flaming torches and the remnants of a battered stone wall is quite spectacular and atmospherically enhanced by lighting designer Matthew E. Adelson. The mostly gold, red and blue palette used by costume designer Paul H. Canada adds richness to the production.
Notwithstanding an opening tableau vivant showing Prince Hal (Derek Wilson) having a robust sexual dalliance with an unnamed wench, this is as fine a reflection of the source material as anyone could ask for. I am probably not alone in thinking that Henry IV, Part One is Shakespeare’s most deliberately entertaining history play, made more so by Discher’s clear vision and his clever staging of the battle scenes (a balance of slow motion and real time). With all due respect for the prescribed savagery that infiltrates the text, it is the ease that the cast has with the text that deserves the most praise. It is always a plus to have so many gathered in Shakespeare’s name rendering his blank verse with intelligence.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking that our hearts and minds should be focused on the title character, as we are instead unwittingly manipulated to care more about that “irresponsible liar without malice, lover of wine, women and song” Sir John Falstaff, who could not be getting a more formidably endearing portrayer than John Ahlin. That Ahlin, who is in his fifth season with the STNJ, has embraced that “huge hill of flesh” with more conspicuous pretensions than I have seen before, even hiding behind a wondrous full white beard. I am in his debt for bringing Falstaff’s delectable wit to the fore, leaving us to instantly forgive his misguided morals. Would that Falstaff should always be seen through the lovably pathetic, villainous and vain posturing that Ahlin brings to the role.
Considering how Falstaff is famously known as one of the greatest comic figures in dramatic literature and made more so by Ahlin’s memorable performance, he plays a rather unimportant role in the scheme of things. As Falstaff reigns over the lowlife and bawdy world, recklessly influencing the young Prince Hal (played by Wilson with low-keyed brio), it is the high-life and intrigue of the duplicitous political world of King Henry IV (Brent Harris), Lord John of Lancaster (Cliff Miller), Hotspur (a strikingly robust performance by Jon Barker), among others who spin the subtle shifts of power. The wives don’t figure importantly in the plot but Jessie Graham shows us the feisty side of Mistress Quickly, whose tavern is the center of much of the action.
This play’s major conflict is between a King and his rebellious heir while the unjustly gained kingdom is threatened by a Welsh rebel force. While the pomp and circumstances of the royals, the typical family issues and feuds thatalso include those of Hotspur and his father Thomas Percy (Conan McCarty) are clearly 15th century England, they will resonate with a disturbingly familiar ring to those who pay attention to our own recent history.
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