Of the entire cannon, the Harry tetralogy is my favorite. Not only does it recount the rise of the House of Lancaster, but it forever engraves into the minds the ficstorical characters of Prince Hal and Falstaff. Marin Shakespeare offers two of the four this season—Henry IV Parts 1 and 2— with a number of good and great actors, and even provides a bit of bang for your buck by looking back to the fall of Richard II and forward to the spring of Henry V. Marin stages these plays separately, although you may attend a marathon Saturday and see both side by side, but make no mistake; each production can easily stand on its own.
Acclaimed composer Billie Cox has created some intriguing music for these productions in “Shakespearean style,” showcasing the vocal talents of Stephen Reynolds (Falstaff) and the Welsh-singing Lady Mortimer (Michelle Pava Mills) whose voices are of great pitch and moment. Cox’s music also accompanies the Battle of Shrewsbury, which features an interestingly choreographed fight scene that offers more stylized grace than bloody battle.
Politic is not the main focus of these productions. In fact, co-director Robert Currier (in partnership with friend and Shakespeare scholar Rob Clare) states that an average of 30% is cut from these histories, and the bulk of that politics. In return, however, Currier and Clare offer an abundance of character development and a vision that emphasizes the differences, rather than the sameness, of the two: Joie de vivre versus the inevitability of death.
Most interesting is the way in which Hal is portrayed. The best description would be that of a reluctant Prince. Grant Goodman plays Prince Hal with the looks (mostly the hair) of a young Olivier. Goodman lets us know that he will reform, redeem time, and be more himself, and in the end, he wears the crown, denies Falstaff, and exits with a superhero-like swish of his kingly robe. But at no time does this Prince come across as plotting a grand reveal. Instead, he squeezes every ounce of cheap sack and cheaper women (and men) out of his final days of foolery and vulgarity, and as the crown draws nearer his head, Goodman visibly draws deeper into himself. Goodman brilliantly sums up his parts in both 1 and 2 with his first soliloquy by breaking it up into three distinct parts. He begins with a playful, unyoked humor, but when he reveals he will throw off his loose behavior, there’s evidence of regret in his voice. And as his soliloquy comes to a close, Goodman is angry and bitter, and comes across as a reckless, yet reluctant young man who has something to prove.
Stephen Reynolds is certainly the star of the stage, and his rendition of Falstaff is witty, gluttonous, cowardly and knifing, in all ways lovable, and in his own way true. Reynolds’ voice is melodic, be it with gravel or vibrato; theatrics or, well, more theatrics. He is constant from beginning to end, even if the world around him is changing. In Part 1, all the world is Reynolds’ audience, both on and off the stage. In-between sweet talking the punk Mistress Quickly (Linda Paplow) and her purple and pink, fishnet and leather-clad horde of working girls into pocketsful of unpaid receipts; feigning valor over dead bodies or ill-gotten and lost gains; scratching his well-defined belly after a night of drinking, or covering that belly with blown up armor, Reynolds portrays Falstaff as a rogue who has a gigantic lust for life and an even bigger love for Hal. In Part 2, however, the fire in his belly is dampened by all around him who talk in code about illness and disease; dying and death, and the audience must sit in wait, with the knowledge that Falstaff’s light will inevitably be pinched at the end of the play.
Comedy ranges in Part 1 from a bit of “potty” humor stage right by way of a cleverly hidden commode, to the many exchanges of pranks and cutting wit in the Boar’s Head Tavern, where it’s “happy hour all day,” and a “double room with a wench” runs you just over five shillings. The spiky-haired Ryan Schmidt as Poins is a master of comedic timing, and he proves and excellent buddy with whom the Prince can volley and receive witty banter. Jack Halton plays an oddly energetic Bardolph with a red and warty nose and a flea-ridden body, but his simpleton antics are bittersweet, as the red scarf and long rope ‘round his neck foreshadow his hanging in Henry V.
Aside from Falstaff’s continuing wit, comedy in Part 2 is contrastingly slapstick. George Maguire flamboyantly portrays Justice Shallow with a lisp and lots of spit, while Ian Swift plays his ancient and grouchy sidekick, Justice Silence, initially crumbled over two walking sticks, but near the end of the play, Swift is suddenly light on his gartered feet, engaging in a rollicking song and dance.
Jarion Monroe plays the title character and commands the stage as a sometimes stoic, other times emotional King who is haunted by guilt, conjuring more psychology than politic. Of course, politic must play some part in these histories, mostly represented by Hotspur (William Elsman) and the rebels on one side, and Prince John of Lancaster (Elias Escobedo) on the other. Escobedo nails his role as the good son who follows in his father’s footsteps of desire and duty, and is both cold and calculating in Part 2 when he manipulates and then executes the rebels Mobray, Hastings, and the Archbishop.
Elsman’s Hotspur is perfectly unsettling, circling the stage like a rabid beast, fiery and volcanic, gnashing his teeth while spitting and growling his words. Even when silent—which is not too often when onstage—Elsman shakes as though about to explode. Cat Thompson commands her part as Elsman’s glamorous counterpart, Lady Percy, and aside from the devious and explosive Worcester (well-executed by Stephen Klum), she is the only character who offers her husband’s fiery temper a run for its money. Elsman and Thompson are a perfect fit, portraying a bickering and sometimes cruel surface, while underneath boils their passionate love and understanding of one another. In Part 2, Thompson plays Falstaff’s favorite whore, Doll Tearsheet, going from a glamorous Lady to crack whore chic, the latter with torn stockings, a hot pink corset, five-inch boots, and multi-colored makeup streaming down her once lovely face. In a twist, Thompson’s Doll comes to a violent and surprising onstage end that’s sure to leave the audience shocked.
But nothing can upstage Hotspur’s death scene, during which Goodman cradles the dying Elsman in his arms, with one hand on his Elsman’s heart, and the other on his spleen. Goodman both laughs and cries as he finishes Hotspur’s words, torn between emotions, duty, desire, his past and his future. Goodman’s Prince Hal is the only character who is left undeveloped, and I surmise there’s great method in this madness, leaving this Prince/King to redeem time in another play, and on another battlefield. Goodman has good presence on the stage, but his character lacks a present in between his past and future, leaving him to be a mystery folded.