This review was originally published in Pioneer Press Newspapers in June, 2011.
In splicing two of Shakespeare’s Henry plays together, Oak Park Festival Theatre has created a three-hour epic. Unfortunately, adaptor Stanton Davis’ ambitious undertaking stops working after the first hour or so.
And despite an engaging, ultimately moving performance by Jack Hickey as Sir John Falstaff, Davis’ cast has some royal troubles delivering the emotional truth within the text.
The end result is a loss of coherence post-intermission, as wars seem to break out at random, and a confusing profusion of triple- and double-cast nobles, groundlings, warriors and wives make it difficult to discern — or care about — what’s at stake in the conflicts of the era. There the primary problem lies with “The History of King Henry the Fourth,” which Davis created by merging segments of Henry IV, Parts I and II. The text that, while often laborious, muddles the storytelling in relating the wars, political intrigues, plots and counter-plots that paved Prince Hal’s often troubled road to the throne and his transformation from party boy prince to superking Henry V.
By serving as director of his own work, Davis walks a treacherous path. In our 20-odd years of reviewing, we’ve rarely known it to end well when a production’s author and director are one and the same. The author knows the play he wanted to write. The director should be in a position to tell the author the play he actually did write. When writer and director are one and the same, a crucial degree of objective perspective is lost. That certainly seems to be the case here, especially in the History’s interminable second half.
Still, Davis’ adaptation begins on solid if not exceptionally vivid ground. We meet King Henry IV, bemoaning the drunken, loutish behavior of his son while fretting over what to do about the malcontented, plotting Percy Family, a royal clan royally out of joint since Henry IV wrested the crown from Richard II. Those two plotlines are the backbone of “Henry IV, Part I” — the evolution of drunken ne’er-do-well Prince Hal into a paragon of royal responsibility and the machinations of those who would steal the crown from Henry IV.
The character who initially joins both threads of the story is young Harry Percy, aka Hotspur, a hotheaded thorn in Henry IV’s side. Hotspur stands as a noble, war-like, comparison to Prince’s Hal’s endless, irresponsible carousing. A showdown between the two young men is inevitable, and much of the first half of Davis’ narrative lays the groundwork for that climactic battle.
It’s following the Henry/Hotspur showdown that “The History of King Henry IV” starts disintegrating. Other than Falstaff, Prince Hal and King Henry IV, it’s all but impossible to differentiate between key characters. And when you can’t tell who’s who, it’s mighty tough to care about what’s what.
Paradoxically, the supporting players often fall into the trap of mugging as if they were in a silent movie. Falstaff’s military contingent is the most egregious example of this. Granted, Sir John’s motley crew is supposed to serve as comic relief. But is it necessary to have them all acting like kindergartners who’ve suffered from substantial traumatic head injuries? No, it is not. Shakespeare’s comedy doesn’t need to be dumbed down like this.
There’s an analogous problem with Hotspur (Adam Meredith). As director, Davis has Meredith overplay the anger until it’s cartoonish. Meredith shows an able command of the language, but his impact is undercut because he delivers each and every line with a heightened, red-faced rage that soon grows monotonous.
Also problematic is the miscast King Henry IV (Michael Sherwin), who looks more like he’s Prince Hal’s brother rather than his father. His youthful appearance means that Sherwin is never believable as the rapidly aging King, thus undermining a key pillar of Shakespeare’s story from the get-go.
As Prince Hal, Dennis Grimes is adequate, effectively portraying a young man’s journey from carefree barfly to sober and serious-minded monarch.
But the character you care about most in Davis’ adaptation is the fat Falstaff, a true-hearted friend under all his drunken sloppiness and a deeply sympathetic character in his final, cruel encounter with Hal. Despite a fat suit that seemed to keep shifting throughout the performance, Hickey’s Falstaff is the fellow who seems most real in this “History.” Would that Hickey’s deep understanding of Shakespeare’s text and his ability to convey that text’s thrilling emotion were shared by the rest of the production.
It’s not impossible to conflate all the complex machinations within Henry plays and arrive at a dramatically enthralling, streamlined narrative. Chicago Shakespeare did it with the magnificent “Rose Rage” in 2004; Court combined the Henrys for “Shadow of Succession” in 1996. But Davis’ adaptation lacks the clarity of those adaptations, while his cast often isn’t up to the challenge of creating memorably differentiated characters from pared down dialogue.
The History of Henry IV runs through July 12 at Oak Park Festival Theatre, Austin Gardens, Oak Park. For ticket info,
To read our review of Oak PArk Festival Theatre’s Blithe Spirit, click here.