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A CurtainUp Review
Henry IV Part I

What is honor? A word.
What is in that word, "honor"?
What is that "honor"? Air.
— Falstaff
Peter Pryor as Falstaff
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
Mounting insurrection keeps King Henry IV from embarking on a Holy Land Crusade as the play opens. Mortimer, who has a fair claim on England's throne, has been taken prisoner. Henry Percy (Northumberland) and his son, Henry "Hotspur", among others from the North insist that the King ransom the prisoner Mortimer. Henry IV, who knows from usurpers, has no interest in springing rival claimant Mortimer. Rebellion brews. Meanwhile the King's ne'er-do-well son, Prince Hal, wastes time in an Eastcheap tavern where he picks up the tab for the bibulous rogue Sir John Falstaff and his lowlife pals. King Henry has had just about enough of his son's behavior, and wishes aloud that he had a son like the valorous, if rebellious, Hotspur.

Hotspur is the perfect foil to the apparently irresponsible Prince. Handsome and dashing, his bold rhetoric is matched by his act-first-think-later bravery. In the Lantern Theater's production, Andrew Kane, a magnificent Hotspur, is at times so spirited that his mad rush of words becomes all but incomprehensible. This actually may be the most believable way to handle the torrential raging. (It is amazing for us to imagine that Olivier once played Hotspur as a comic oaf who couldn't pronounce the letter R.)

Hal's father the King might like him better had he witnessed Hal's little soliloquy, where he discloses that he already has plans to straighten up. He reasons that once he does, he will be admired all the more for having changed from a wastrel. Is Prince Hal only posing as he plays at non-stop partying and waits for his moment? Is he truly laying back and learning? Or is he just in no rush to grow up, something along the lines of St Augustine's prayer, "Give me chastity and continence, but not yet."

Allen Radway is a smart and talented actor, yet there are issues with this take on Prince Hal. While the rather lackluster Prince gets by in Eastcheap, the role begs for a heartier lad, better fit by nature to mix it up with bawdy companions. And he must convince as the will to battle comes upon him. At the least our slouching, irresponsible Hal, even if he doesn't evidence much fondness and vigor in Falstaff's world, needs to become more robust as the upright Prince's splendid capabilities are finally revealed. A new costume for his newly turned leaf wouldn't hurt either.

It is, of course, Falstaff who owns this play with his outsize personality and dead-on insightful observations. Even on paper with no actors at all he is splendid, and he surely shines when the role is fully realized in the person of actor Peter Pryor. Enormous Falstaff is as mentally quick as he is physically weighed down by avoirdupois. Pryor handles the humorous, playful scoundrel with aplomb, along with the added corpulence he carries. An accomplished comedian, Pryor dissects the wordplay and serves it up with relish. He seems to delight in truly embodying all the facets of this complex character —the earthiness, the philosophy, the thwarting of dangers, the dynamic inestimable wit, the movement and facial expressions. Even more remarkable is the fact that Pryor also plays the political, troubled Henry IV, and slides into that oppositional role just as well. [Actually this is not a big surprise to his fans, who were gratified that he won the Barrymore Award in 06 for his political, subversively comedic Richard III, also at the Lantern.]

In a centerpiece scene at the tavern, Hal and Falstaff practice for when Hal eventually must face his father. They act out a conversation between the King and his son. "Jack" Falstaff playing the King, lectures son Hal. This is a tasty morsel made even more delicious by the side effects of double-casting Pryor as both Henry IV and Falstaff. But the playacting ends portentiously after Hal and Falstaff switch roles. Falstaff, now as the Prince, begs the father not to banish plump Jack. And Hal as the King, answers, "I do. I will."

Henry IV Part I is not an easy play to mount. It's a character study that takes place in what constitutes two different worlds, and then there's all the political complexity. Fortunately director Charles McMahon has a way with coaxing out superb line readings. He has taken the text apart to learn what makes it tick, and then reassembled it so no one will notice. It's not modernized, but it emerges with Shakespeare's brilliance comprehended. Grasped, slimmed down and pointed, it is lively and accessible to today's audience.

The speeches, with zillions of old referents that are virtually impossible to convey to a modern audience within one performance, still sing. The other half of the credit for all this goes to the actors, who totally get it. The hearty production benefits mightily from their energy, natural intonation, and down-to-earth delivery. It is not all talk, though. There are good fights, courtesy of fight director J. Alex Cordaro, most notably the swordplay in the flashing, climactic clash of Hal and Hotspur.

The small theater's thrust stage, almost bare, is fitted out with strong architectural elements. Period-type beams overhead define the performing space, and massive wooden doors dominate the one wall where the stage is raised. Set designer Meghan Jones and lighting designers Drew Billiau and Christopher Heatherington have achieved a striking atmosphere. Scenes look like well-composed paintings that take on life as the action transpires within a special light. Mark Mariani's good looking costumes complete the effect. The sound design is notable. Nick Rye has created a plan of stately music, musical transitions, and soundscapes of battle that insinuate themselves into the action so well that it can take awhile before you realize the sound is there, subtly working its influence.

The smaller but feisty womens' roles (and gender-blind ensemble male roles) are dispatched with charismatic ease by Rachel Joffred and Mary Lee Bednarek. The vivid characters Douglas (Jered McLenigan) and Glendower (Russ Widdall) stand out although they are not long on stage. And Widdall's dashing Westmoreland cuts a fine figure. David Blatt takes on Peto and Worcester, such different roles, so well delineated. Tim Moyer as Northumberland, and even more as the comic, pathetic Bardolph is a joy to behold.

Chalk up another Shakespeare success at the Lantern with this handsome, audience-pleasing production. Young Hal has made a start and ultimately he will become the Prince his father wanted him to be. Director McMahon's dramatic, lovely ending moment is perfect. It's an ending, but it is poised for the events of Part II.

Henry IV Part I
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Charles McMahon

Cast: Mary Lee Bednarek, David Blatt, Rachael Joffred, Andrew Kane, Jered McLenigan, Tim Moyer, Peter Pryor, Allen Radway, Russ Widdall
Set Design: Meghan Jones
Costume Design: Mark Mariani
Lighting Design: Drew Billiau, Christopher Hetherington
Sound Design and Composer: Nick Rye
Fight Director: J. Alex Cordaro
Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Sts.
April 1- May 2, Opening 04/07/10
2 hours, 40 minutes with one 10 min intermission
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 04/07 performance
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