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Henry IV, Part 1

by Rich See

Rebellion in this land shall lose his sway,
Meeting the check of such another day;
And since this business so fair is done,
Let us not leave till all our own be won.

---Keith Baxter as King Henry IV

Christopher Kelly, Keith Baxter and Kenneth Lee
C. Kelly, K. Baxter and K. Lee (Photo: Richard Termine)

From the opening scene of Shakespeare Theatre's ambitious Henry IV, Part 1 you see deep brown, rich wood. The entire stage is one huge piece of polished wood. From it you get a sense of solidity and a feeling of age, justness, and permanence. All things that are in direct opposition to the action on stage and the tone of the play. It's an interesting contrast, but somewhat prescient in that, when Prince Hal eventually becomes King Henry V -- solidity, justness, and permanence will be the hallmarks of his reign. But for now it's a contrast to his father, Henry IV's, unenviable position of being a king with little claim to the crown and many enemies who would like to take it away from him. (And ironically solidity, justness, and permanence will be in contrast to Henry V's son Henry VI's reign who will be the end of the line for the House of Lancaster.)

Part of Shakespeare's second tetralogy of plays, Henry IV picks up where Richard II leaves off. Having claimed the crown after the removal and death of Richard, Henry must now deal with the constant rumblings that his monarchy is invalid. As the play opens the King is having a nightmare and it soon becomes apparent that there are those who would challenge his role of sovereignty. The lauded young nobleman "Hotspur" is withholding prisoners of war and since he has married the sister of Edmund Mortimer, the rightful heir to the throne, he is now under suspicion by the King. And as it turns out justifiably so, since he is spearheading a plan for revolt and returning the crown back to Mortimer. Meanwhile, much to the King's dismay, his son and heir Prince Hal seems disinterested in political matters, spending his time with the drunken Sir John Falstaff and other less than desirable types at local taverns. It's only when the King demands his son's assistance in combating Hotspur that the two begin a reconciliation. And it's only on the battlefield that Prince Hal begins to show the character that he will become known for as Henry V.

Director Bill Alexander has chosen a very traditional and minimalist staging for the production. Door frames emerging from the stage imply entire rooms while battles derive their gristly allure through frenetic lighting. The whole effect highlights the words and the actors, and specifically does not rely on sets and props to make the action flow or keep your attention. That is not to say the staging or sets are bleak. Far from it, the piece flows so smoothly, that it doesn't feel at all like it runs three hours long. However, Mr. Alexander appears to be directing this production for those who love the language of the Bard. A risky move in this day and age of special effects laden films and Broadway tours. Especially when you consider this is only Part 1 and the next production in the theater's schedule is Part 2. If Part 1 doesn't inspire you, you probably won't come back for Part 2. But then you would miss what promises to be a wonderful follow-up to this outstanding production where everyone -- cast and crew -- shine like the highly polished veneer of the wood-hued stage.

Set and Costume Designer Ruari Murchison's set, as previously mentioned, is glistening wood. It towers in height and seems endless in space. The King's bedroom, which opens the play at the moment Henry IV is having a nightmare seems to envelope the King in darkness, while highlighting the aloneness he feels on the throne. The dinner table where he eats with his sons is surrounded by darkness and seems dwarfed by the height of the set, playing into the feeling that this is not a household at ease. When royal banners are unfurled for a meeting between King and noblemen, again the feeling is that the House of Lancaster is overwhelmed by the situations at hand.

Designer Tim Mitchell's lighting is equally impressive. With sunlight streaming on stage from hidden windows or moving clouds punctuating the realism of outdoor skyscapes, there are moments where his work is simply beautiful. And when you go, take special note of an outdoor nighttime scene, comprised of a backdrop with pale shadings of light and the slow, subtle, almost unnoticeable appearance of the moon.

The cast is just as energized as the designers. Keith Baxter creates a Henry IV, who is both insistent in his noble demeanor, while constantly insecure in his noble stature. Under all the trappings of power he is keenly aware of how he achieved that power and how it might be taken away from him. His Henry IV is quite awake to the fact that even the king has limitations and that part of the role of being the monarch is public relations. So while at once conciliatory towards his attackers, he is at the same time all demanding of their loyalty to the point of being insensitively haughty. For him, this is a delicate political game to both ensure the success of his house and the legitimacy of his reign.

Andrew Long, as the "Hotspur" Henry Percy, shines as a man who is admired for his battlefield exploits, yet makes it apparent that the same fiery temper which fuels his military successes is not the best mindset to lead a rebellion. He's at once humble and full of himself and it is the latter, which proves his undoing. Mr. Long's ability to bring out the humor in the role makes him a magnetic presence on the stage.

Christopher Kelly's Prince Hal brings the "bad boy heir" to life with a twinkle in his eye. He's a ruffian who is not above urging others to perform a robbery, even if it is simply for his own amusement. However, Kelly's delivery makes you want to overlook this minor character flaw. And at the same time you can see a similar streak of insensitivity, much like his father, in the way that he treats Sir John Falstaff. As if, like his father, he is unsure of his own place in the world and needs to convince himself of his superiority at Falstaff's expense. The chemistry between Kelly and Baxter is such that when the two begin to make amends, it is both believable and touching. While the chemistry between Kelly and his Falstaff (Ted Van Griethuysen) appears to be much more shallow, something which shadows Hal's eventual disownment of Falstaff in Part 2.

And the infamous Sir John Falstaff, as played by Ted Van Griethuysen, is a wily character through and through. He's neither noble, honest, nor kind. But his Falstaff is not simply an on-stage joke. While he is the cornerstone to the plays humor, he also seems acutely aware that at any moment he could become part of its tragedy. It's a tightrope walk of finesse that Mr. Van Griethuysen brings out the humanity in the role.

Filling the smaller roles, Nancy Robinette steps out of the shadows as Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the Boar's Head Tavern where Hal, Falstaff, and their friends hang out. Her comedic timing is once again on the mark. Anthony Marble as Edmund Mortimer, the true heir to the throne, is both compelling and funny when he bemoans the fact that he is unable to communicate with his wife -- he only speaks English, she only speaks Welsh. Edwina Findley, as Lady Mortimer, fills the stage and portends their doom with her a cappella singing. And Floyd King is wonderfully outspoken and smug, in a much more serious role than he usually undertakes, as her father Owen Glendower of Wales.

Bill Alexander has seemingly taken a more subtle and understated approach than the recently staged Dakin Matthews' adaptation at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, which combined Parts 1 and 2 into a single production. That hardly makes Shakespeare Theatre's offering any less enjoyable or interesting. Each director and actor brings their own shadings to the words. With little touches like the way the actors intermingle at times with the scene changers as they move props and staging pieces across the floor, or a scene changer pulling food out of a surprised Ted Van Griethuysen's hands, Mr. Alexander has mined the play for its most comedic output. And this creates a wonderful contrast to the grim reality of the political gamesmanship being played out by the key characters.

Shakespeare Theatre is mounting Parts 1 and 2 of "Henry IV" separately and then from May 5th through May 16th running both in repertory. It's a wonderful artistic opportunity for Washington audiences. And who knows, perhaps one day four of our theaters will collaborate during a season and each run one play in a Shakespearean cycle. Thus each can give their own spin and twist to the Bard's timeless masterpieces, while offering audiences a chance to take in the entire panorama of his words. Much like the Royal Shakespeare Company provided in 2001 when it had eight different directors interpret all of Shakespeare's historical dramas and then ran them in chronological order.

Lincoln Center's Henry IV (combined) in NY
RSC's Henry IV (combined) in London

Henry IV, Part 1
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bill Alexander
with Keith Baxter, Christopher Kelly, Kenneth Lee, Timothy Sekk, Ravi Jain, Raphael Nash Thompson, Richard Pelzman, Edward Gero, Gregg Almquist, Andrew Long, Elisabeth Adwin, Anthony Marble, Edwina Findley, Floyd King, Ryan Artzberger, Marty Lodge, Lawrence Redmond, Todd Scofield, Ted Van Griethuysen, Nancy Robinette, Hugh Nees, Caleb Mayo, Christopher Browne, Lawrence Redmond, Cecil Baldwin, Jonathan Brathwaite, Chris Cantrell, Celia Madeoy
Set and Costume Design: Ruari Murchison
Lighting Design: Tim Mitchell
Composer: Adam Wernick
Sound Design: Martin Desjardins
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Vocal Consultant: Ellen O'Brien
Running Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Shakespeare Theatre
450 7th Street NW, Washington, DC
Telephone: 202-547-1122 TUE-WED@7:30, THUR-SAT@8, SAT-SUN@2, SUN@7:30; $16-$66
Opening 01/20/04, closing 03/13/04
Reviewed by Rich See based on 01/25/04 performance

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