Oregon Shakespeare Festival this season offers the rare opportunity to see what one might call William Shakespeare’s ‘Falstaff Triad.’ Along with The Merry Wives of Windsor, the third in the so-called Falstaff sequence, Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two document parallel journeys of the rotund and rowdy rascal, Sir John Falstaff, and his unlikely, sometime pal — the errant Crown Prince Hal, he being too well known for his espièglerie and escapes into the backstreet bars of London. As Falstaff’s sun moves toward its setting due to age and a life of drinking and small-time thievery, Hal’s sun is on a slow but sure rise in the course of the three plays. The contrast becomes one of the striking, underlying themes of the three plays as history marches uneasily forward even as the two friends revel the nights away over much drunk sack.
Hal’s father and king, Henry IV, faces threats to the crown he acquired through murder (documented in Shakespeare’s Richard II). Those stormy clouds finally provide the impetus for Prince Hal to begin his own prodigal journey toward the someday Crown. With casts, scenic backdrops, and other production elements that largely overlap, Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents Henry IV, Parts One and Two, even offering opportunities to see the entire sequence in one day. Doing so opens the possibility in just a few hours to steep oneself in intriguing, troubling, but ultimately inspiring English history while also finding much humor and hubris in the rabbles and rouses of one Sir John and his questionable band of followers.
So fat of body that walking is often a miracle unto itself (especially when considering his ongoing consumption of fortified wine or brandy), G. Valmont Thomas is a Sir John Falstaff to be thoroughly enjoyed and surely long-remembered. When we first see him in Part One, his pink suit and gaudily flowered shirt are the first signs that his over-sized body is indicative of his over-sized personality and ego as well as an inflated appetite for a life of constant leisure, mild lechery, and full-on laughter (those yeehaws as much at the expense of others as possible). During the course of the two plays, Sir John will reluctantly take to the fields of chivalry, doing all he can to avoid any serious fighting but making sure to claim heroic victories. He will be the brunt of much teasing and trickery by Hal and his friend, Poins, but will invariably find ways to make it look as if he were all along in full knowledge and control of the ruses. Mr. Thomas uses to incredible effects his own large, round eyes with whites that shine bright against the dark sea of his big smiling face. His Falstaff has a wardrobe full of facial masks that he naturally creates and wears to give the ol’ geezer a warehouse of expressions that detail his unwelcome journey over the course of the two plays of aging and of having and losing Hal’s favor.
Prince Hal himself undergoes major transformation during the course of Parts One and Two, and Daniel José Molina is magnificent in a role that stretches the ranges of Hal’s maturity and manners to great widths. In Part One, we meet a Hal that is every parent’s worst nightmare —- sullen and smirky, blasé and bored when with his father while wildly raucous, carelessly abandoned, and quick to temper and trickery when with his friends. Here is a Hal in open jacket baring a chest of tattoos ready to join his friends in a booze-filled foam-party at a local club where women of the night are his easy companions as are guys who are more comfortable mugging for money than earning an honest living. This is the unlikely next king of England, but one who at the height of his revelry begins to realize that there is an end coming to his ribaldry:
“So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am.
… My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.”
When Hal’s turning point does come due to the mounting threats to his father’s (and ultimately, to his own) crown, the metamorphosis in the countenance, stance, and even voice of Mr. Molina are palpable as he looks for the first time squarely into his father’s eyes (versus the normal shrugging and diverting) and declares,
“I will redeem all this on Percy’s head,
And, in the closing of some glorious day,
Be bold to tell you that I am your son …”
Those changes continue as he takes to the battlefield of Part One; and even though there is some retreat to Falstaff and friends in Part Two, it is clear that the old Hal is fading away. The Hal of Part Two has moments of the old ribald Hal; but in his eyes, there is a growing reserve and a knowledge that both his father’s days on earth and his own days as a young man hanging on to the manners of a teen are now numbered.
The contrast Shakespeare makes between Hal and Harry Hotspur — a valiant warrior who is a leader among those rebelling against Henry IV’s deemed illegitimate rule in Part One — is played out wonderfully by Mr. Molina’s Hal and the Hotspur we meet, as played in this production by a woman, Alejandra Escalante. While Hal is unpredictable and wild in the bars, once he approaches confrontation on the battlefield, he is level-headed, strong-willed, and increasingly valiant. From the moment we meet her, Hotspur is quick-tempered, hot-headed, and extremely impatient of others. She is full of nervous energy in her constant pacing and quickly rises in voice when challenged by others. But her courage and her own valor is never in question by those around her, including by Hal himself. Ms. Escalante is a Hotspur believable and one that earns our respect and our sympathy, even as we are cheering for Hal to defeat her in their destined confrontation. (In Part Two, Ms. Escalante takes on a variety of roles often of the lower class and continues to excel in the convincing persona that she creates.)
In both parts of Henry IV, Jeffrey King as the title character embodies the question Shakespeare raises about what does it mean to be the legitimate ruler. In his constant looks of agony and pain and his reluctance to put the crown on his head (often holding it to his side instead), this King shows the inner battle — mostly unspoken but always clearly conveyed — he as ruler wages. He faces threats of those rising against him, and he questions almost until his death if his crown prince is worthy of succession. However, it is his own past path to ascension that plows deeper in concern as can be seen in the increasing wrinkles of his brow and the slumping of his worn-out body and soul. In battle this King Henry IV is outwardly strong and mighty; but in the quiet of his bedroom or near his throne, there is a loneliness and a cloud of doubt that is seen in every part of the actor’s magnificent rendering of the King.
In two plays of such historically epic dimensions that also dip into the bellies of society to wallow in forbidden fun, there are too many wonderful performances to note in a too-short review of highlights; but a few more must be detailed. Chief among these is Michele Mais as the mammoth-bosomed, big-hearted hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly. Saucy, snappy and full of shrieks and shrills that are as sharp as her quick wit and tongue, Mistress Quickly jerks, swishes, and proudly struts about her nightclub/bar setting as queen supreme. As the two plays progress, she too ages somewhat and becomes a bit rattier and torn for wear, but Ms. Mais maintains the Mistress’s humor and heart as well as a sense of spunk that is contagious for all, including Hal himself.
Lauren Modica is a woman naturally of diminutive height whose presence on the stage in both plays is gigantic time and again. Whether playing the clownish Peto (a follower of Falstaff), the rebel leader Glendower, a sleepy country justice named Silence, or a chief and ultimately doomed opponent of Henry named Mowbry, Ms. Modica finds innumerable ways to be funny, cynical, tough-minded, or simple-minded — whatever the parts demand.
Lileana Blain-Cruz has the advantage as director of Part One of inheriting a script rich in conspiracies to overcome, riotous and ridiculous scenes to play to the hilt, and a battle that serves as climax and turning point for the projected story of both plays. With the decision to stage these two Henry IV’s in modern dress, Ms. Blain-Cruz’s choice to carry out the battle scenes in the intimate Thomas Theatre as modern warfare is brilliant. Sounds of helicopters, bombs, and bullets buzzing overhead (as just part of the incredible sound design of Palmer Hefferan) are enhanced by the actual smells of gunpowder and destruction that enter the scenes of war, battle scenes created with the help of Adam Rigg’s scenic elements and Yi Zhao’s inspired lighting. (All three of these members of the creative team also produce fabulous, outlandish effects for Part One’s Boar’s Head bar scenes.). Much credit must also go to Christopher DuVal as Fight Coordinator; the clashes and conflicts of the battle scenes that occur just a few feet away from the audience are shockingly realistic in all respects.
The pace that Ms. Blain-Cruz maintains in Part One with scenes blending quickly one into the other result in the three-hour production almost passing too quickly, so fully absorbing are all the play’s events and episodes. Unfortunately, that is not uniformly the case in Henry IV, Part Two. That the almost equal-length play at times feels like it may never end may be due only in small part to the direction of Carl Cofield. Shakespeare just does not pack as much surprise and suspense into Part Two. There are no battles. We have already long met most of the funnier characters. Hal is only briefly back to his old, sinful self; and there are just seemingly a lot more scenes of many wordy lines being passed back and forth without much being said.
However, when Part Two does build toward the passing of life and lineage between father and son, King and Prince, Mr. Cofield’s direction and the continued excellent portrayals by Jeffery King (King Henry IV) and Daniel José Molina (Prince Hal) combine to bring the two plays’ climax to its rightful peaks of emotion and impact.
Being able in one day, as was I, to see both Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two (and having already been in the audience earlier in the week for Merry Wives) was remarkably wonderful. That is especially true given the innovative casting the stage and casting directors made for this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival offerings. The number of women stepping in as women for parts usually played only by men, the inclusion of same-sex married couples, and the employment of at least one actress whose smaller size might belie at first glance her ability to step into large roles — all of these and many more decisions are to be commended and are just some of the reasons that both Henry IV’s should not be missed this 2017 season in Ashland.
Rating, Henry IV, Part One: 5 E
Rating, Henry IV, Part Two: 3.5 E
Photo Credit: Jenny Graham
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