'Henry' extends history of success

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage is a marvelous venue for Shakespeare's history plays. That classic façade and generous stage with its many potential levels, entrances and exits are perfect for Shakespeare's vigorous battles and crowded counsels. Although more intimate scenes often can get lost, directors have the space and freedom to maneuver a large cast effectively.

This production of "Henry IV, Part One," as directed by festival veteran Penny Metropulos, has all the requisite sweep and majesty. As a presentation, it is nearly irresistible, with its contrast of broad, bawdy humor and its life-and-death political struggles and examination of the duties of kingship. (The festival first produced the play in 1950 and five times after that, the most recent of which, in 1998, had Prince Hal on a Harley.)

"Henry IV, Part One" is a tale of the prodigal son set against the political precursor to the War of the Roses. Henry IV (Richard Howard) recently wrested the crown from the ineffective Richard II (Cristofer Jean). Now he has to rule the same pack of fractious nobles who helped him do it, principally Westmoreland (Richard Elmore), Worcester (James Newcomb), Northumberland (Josiah Phillips) and Northumberland's trigger-temper son, nicknamed "Hotspur" (Kevin Kenerly). Henry has a younger son, John (Daniel Marmion), and supportive loyal retainers such as Sir Walter Blunt (U. Jonathan Toppo), but it is Henry's despair that his eldest and heir, Prince Hal (John Tufts), spends his time with commoners and drunks in London's dissolute taverns with a scoundrel of an old knight, John Falstaff (David Kelly).

As rebellion simmers and boils over, Prince Hal is called to assume his responsibilities. Will he, can he, do so?

Metropulos uses the grittiness of the early tavern scenes to highlight Hal's transformation from a wastrel into the responsible prince. Tufts does a good job of delineating the limits that Hal has set for his own behavior — he won't steal, he won't betray his friends, he doesn't even wench all that much. By contrasting Hal's unheeding debauchery of the early tavern scene with his growing concern over what is happening at court and country, Metropulos emphasizes his character arc.

Unfortunately, Metropulos chose to broaden the already broadly written tavern scenes that establish Hal's wastrel lifestyle. She also chose to make Falstaff too much the caricature — too fat, too gross. He is so grotesque that we all but lose his vitality, his charming wit and, unfortunately, a lot of the brilliant language. There is also too much stage "business" going on behind the repartee of Hal and Falstaff. Granted there is a lot of stage to fill in the Elizabethan, but the main action is eclipsed when the audience is unfairly distracted by bits and pieces to the left, right and above.

This production shines when we leave the tavern and get back to the politics. Of course, the foil to the dissipated Hal is the character of Hotspur. Hal is unfocused and apprehensive about his looming responsibility. Hotspur grabs his destiny with both hands. Kenerly is always a forceful actor, and here he can use his crafted impetuosity to full effect. The interchange between Hotspur and the pompously self-important Welsh lord Glendower (Anthony Heald) is as delicious as Hotspur's challenge to his elder colleagues, especially the Earl of Douglas (Jeffrey King), to seize the moment in this rebellion they've fomented.

Scenic design by Michael Ganio features a backdrop of a chessboard with all the symbols of a king's power — crown, sword, crucifix, scepter and orb. But the classic stairs leading to the stage's upper levels are adorned with what can only be described as black and gold industrial scaffolding interspersed with I-beams. It is a strange but relatively unobtrusive set. Lighting design is by Robert Peterson. The sort-of medieval costumes are by Deborah M. Dryden.

Composer and sound designer Michael Keck has provided some effectively integrated music along with a haunting Welsh ballad for the Glendower interlude.

There is an interesting twist at the end of "Henry IV, Part One." Henry has offered a truce to the rebels, but the intermediary, Worcester, fails to convey it. He doesn't trust Henry's word — with some good reason. But Henry meant what he said and a lot of lives, noble and commoner, are lost in a battle that could have been avoided. It is a chilling preview of what is to befall England in "Henry IV, Part Two" and "Henry V."

Sir John Falstaff arguably is Shakespeare's most famous and well-crafted comic character. He is the consummate rascal, knave, opportunist. Ah, but is he also a coward? Perhaps the best answer to that is in the succinct description of Falstaff in the preface written by William Allan Neilson and Charles Jarvis Hills in the New Cambridge Edition of "The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare."

"There is evidence enough that he did not lack courage, but he practiced a discreet economy in its employment."

Perhaps Falstaff's musings on the question of "honor" at the end of this play are not as funny and ridiculous as they might seem.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

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