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Henry IV, Part 2
by Rich See
Shakespeare Theatre continues The Bard's saga of the War of the Roses and the Bolingbroke kings with Henry IV, Part 2, the sequel to the theatre's just finished successful run of Part 1. And just as it did previously, Shakespeare Theatre once again delivers an eye-catching, high impact production that resonates with drama and spills over with laughs!
Part 2 picks up exactly where the previous Henry left off... the battle at Shrewsbury is over and rumors are flying about the kingdom as to the outcome of the uprising. Once the news of Hotspur's defeat is revealed to his father, a new campaign is mounted by the men who want the King removed. Meanwhile, Henry IV is seriously ill, due to the stress of his reign and in London, Sir John Falstaff is up to his usual tricks of sponging off other's goodwill. All eyes are looking at whether Prince Hal, who is back to having drinks with his old friends, is an adequate heir to the throne. From there it's another battle, another visit to the Boar's Head Tavern, and eventually another coronation in the fourth of Shakespeare's history plays.
Director Bill Alexander has again chosen a minimal staging that relies less on theatrics and more on simple beauty. Far from limiting the production, the spareness of the staging pushes the play's attention onto Shakespeare's poetic language, while requiring the utmost commitment from Alexander's excellent cast and a focused attention from the audience. Happily, Mr. Alexander has decided that Washington audiences are ready to be stimulated, not simply entertained. And so, this production has as much energy to it as the previous even though the play itself seems more a transition piece between Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry V. This may be the reason that when combined adaptations of the two plays appear, usually just a portion of scenes are taken from Part 2 and added to Part 1.
Set and Costume Designer Ruari Murchison and Lighting Designer Tim Mitchell have worked together to create some wonderful effects. Murchison's set consists solely of rich, deep, dark brown wood. Beyond the wood are simply shadows that seem to signify the isolation of being king. Rising doorways imply whole rooms; while tables and chairs are constantly being re-arranged to create new locales. When a huge cross emerges from the floor with a filtered reddish light glowing across it, the effect is truly inspiring. Mitchell's lighting techniques use shadow and light as compatible playmates. From the brownish-red glow on the cross to moments when the actors are purposely outside of the spotlight, the use of lighting is a constant for dramatic impact. Again the lighting and set become intertwined during the scene in the King's bed chamber, when a mosaic "rug" (made of lights) appears on the floor and a backdrop becomes a gold and metallic fabric.
Although the title character does not make his appearance until late in Act 1 and Sir John Falstaff is thought to be the star of the play, Keith Baxter's Henry IV is the most interestingly complex character on stage. This is a man who is obsessed with the idea of being king yet the strain of his reign has made him seriously ill. And Baxter brings this obsession to life believably portraying Henry as alternately insecure and confident. The crown becomes the source of his strength and the bane of his existence. Never out of his hand, always within his sight, he's carrying it around with him, sleeping with it, and eventually suspecting his eldest son of wanting him dead for it. It clouds his every thought and Baxter shows us that the crown is like an albatross tied around Henry's neck and weighing him down, right to the grave.
Among the cast, some Washington regulars are immediate stand outs. Ted Van Griethuysen's Sir John Falstaff is immediately lovable and cunningly mercenary. You are never quite sure if he actually cares about Prince Hal or is simply using him to his own ends. Even when Hal eventually disowns Falstaff, the response is not so much of heart ache but of diminished pride. Which goes well, since Falstaff is truly self-absorbed and concerned solely with his own well-being before anyone else's.
Nancy Robinette as Mistress Quickly shines in a part that shows off her wonderful comedic skills. When she declares "I have not lived all this while to have swaggering!" during a rant to Sir John, she is especially infectious. It's a shame we don't see her more often and in larger parts. Floyd King is especially appealing as the extremely far sighted Justice Robert Shallow. Once again he runs with a small part and moves it along like a steamroller adding mannerisms and looks that seem to come naturally and are not at all artificial.
Naomi Jacobson's Doll Tearsheet is an interesting mix of lasciviousness and propriety. Andrew Long, Hotspur in the previous production, is very funny as the pirate-like Pistol. Lawrence Redmond, as the Archbishop of York, has a subtle way of seeming conspiratorial. Kenneth Lee is emphatic as Prince John. And Christopher Kelly shows the maturity of the bad boy Hal into the responsible Henry V in a touching and believable manner, especially when he reunites with his father towards the end of Act 2.
All in all, this is a terrific production whose cast imbues it with a great deal of energy. Thus the piece doesn't seem too take it's three hour and twenty minute running time. Seeing the previous play is not a prerequisite, although if you want to see Part 1 you are in luck. At the end of this run, the Shakespeare Theatre will be offering a revolving repertory of both plays beginning May 5th and running through May 15th. In addition, the theatre is offering various theatre/restaurant/hotel packages for out-of-towners, as well as Washington natives. To check out their offerings go to http://www.shakespearedc.org.
CurtainUp's DC review of The Shakespeare Theatre's Part 1
Lincoln Center's Henry IV (combined) in NY
RSC's Henry IV (combined) in London
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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