It’s words not swords that that do the work for Actors’ Shakespeare Project as they take you through “Henry IV,” the two-part war chronicle (parts I and II play in repertory), which they’ve subtitled “The Coveted Crown.”
The Henrys are hard. There are a lot of courtiers and rebels who are difficult to keep straight, especially without the foreknowledge of the conflict that Shakespeare’s audience had, and especially with A.S.P.’s propensity for triple casting their actors. Then there’s the jokes; the Henrys are chalked full of witty tavern banter, but because it’s in Elizabethan slang it’s often particularly difficult to keep up with.
Fortunately, the Henry’s are also chalked full of rewards of which this company takes advantage. Foremost is the language, which is always the star of an A.S.P. production. At the heart of the Henry’s is the complex relationship between Prince Hal (later Henry V) and his two father figures, Bolingbroke (aka Henry IV, the current king of England and Hal’s actual biological father) and Falstaff, the wayward, aging knight who dominates the local low-life bar at which Prince Hal likes to go slumming.
Resident acting company member, Bill Barclay, plays this production’s Hal and fits the image well with his tall, lean physique and clean-cut prep school looks. At times Barclay a bit too far into his own head, not quite enough on edge for the scheming Hal who is quick to anger at Falstaff and blush at his father’s chastisements—but Barclay is charming, masterful with the poetry and clear in presenting Hal’s arch from a rebellious over-cocky gad-about to a young leader focused on honor and duty.
With his booming bass and brooding visage, Joel Colodner is nothing short of haunting as Hal’s father, the rebel turned troubled ruler, always wary that his past is not behind him, but looms ready to turn the wheel of fate back around.
The talented comic actor, Robert Walsh is equally memorable as Falstaff. Walsh is a great storyteller and his wry expressions and punchy cadence endow his Falstaff with the appropriate oversized charm and swagger. You don’t need to get all the jokes. You get the character, and it’s a great one. Walsh gets the aid of a formidable paunch ensconced in velvet and a poofed up shock of white hair rising over his rubbery brow. He looks like a bloated cross between Kenny Rogers and Tom Waits.
Walsh also gets the aid of some great sidemen (and women), most notably company members Bobby Steinbach as Mistress Quickly, the tawdry old barmaid who loves him, and Michael Forden Walker, who plays the lowlife Falstaff antagonist, Poins, as a greaser with an itchy dagger finger.
Outside of the court of Bolingbroke and the Tavern of Falstaff, the first part of Henry IV stars Hotspur, Hal’s foil, who, while he is an enemy to Hal’s father, is admired of the king as a man of honor and action, the embodiment of a solider. Hal has decided to have fun while he’s still young, to hang out with rabble and cultivate an impression that he’s lazy, sinful and soft, for the purpose, he claims in a soliloquy, of lowering expectations to make his rise to power that much more impressive.
Hotspur, meanwhile has no patience for games of any kind—diplomacy and politics included. In this production, Hotspur is played by A.S.P. artistic director, Allyn Burrows. Burrows’ white hair is vastly inappropriate for the role of the young gallant, but his ceaseless, almost manic energy compensates; his Hotspur is extremely entertaining.
While Henry IV Part I is about bluffing, game-playing, lying and acting (in both senses), Part II, while still rife with comic relief, is about life during more serious times. It’s about transition and loss. The war is ratcheting up which means Hal has less time to waste. His true father is in waning health and his surrogate father, the Lord of Misrule, must spend more time on the battlefield, where he has never belonged.
Some great new characters are added into the mix in Part II, including the formidable Lord Chief Justice, played stoic and cool by Jonathan Louis Dent. He has the king’s ear, rides hot on Falstaff’s tail and indirectly forces Hal to choose one of the sides—rule or misrule—that he has been straddling throughout his young life.
In addition to new enemies, Falstaff gets a host of new friends, most notably, Justice Shallow (the very funny Steven Barkhimer) an ancient drinking companion with whom he has “heard the chimes of midnight. Shallow helps Falstaff conscript his battalion of the old and the crippled who cannot pay their way out of service, and he promised a high rank in the new world order to come when Falstaff’s surrogate son achieves the throne.
For his part, Hal stars in one of the most memorable scenes in all of Shakespeare, when he stands by his father’s deathbed and, equivocating all the while, cannot keep his eyes or his hands off of the crown, only to be caught by his father who, not quite dead yet, fears that he is nothing but an obstacle in the eyes of his heir. Hal’s greatest challenge as an orator is to bring his father around to the opposite view during the last moments of his life.
Director Patrick Swanson and Adaptor Robert Walsh naturally take some liberties in staging this challenging two-part epic. One that works, is the decision to cast Bobbie Steinbach as a musical chorus with some original verses that invite us into the world of the play and thank us at it’s conclusion. Steinbeck’s narrator subsumes the role of Rumor, used by Shakespeare to preface Part II.
A less helpful choice is that to graft the last scene of “Richard II” (“Henry IV’s” prequel) to the beginning of Part I and the first scene of “Henry V” (Henry IV’s sequel) to the end of Part II. While these are both great scenes and contain much that comments on the action and themes of the Henry IV plays, they turn out to be less impactful when extracted from their original contexts. “Richard II’s” coronation scene works as the culmination of that play’s tension, and the war declaration scene from “Henry V” works best as a provocation to it’s later action. It’s anticlimactic as an ending. More than that though, these plays are simply long enough that they could have used more subtraction and less addition.
In the end though, what matters, what lingers when all the words are spoken and the exits made, are memories of the solemn Bolingbroke, the calculating Hal, the fiery Hotspur, the bombastic and invincibly charming Falstaff and all of the best words and exploits of their cronies and foes. Commit to A.S.P.’s Henry’s and you will gain these rich memories.
“Henry IV Parts I & II: The Coveted Crown” play in Repertory at Fort Point Channel’s Midway Studios through November 21.