So Many Words, So Little Time

Kahn Delves Deep Into Henry IV, Part 1

Edward Gero as King Henry IV in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 1, directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company presents Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, this month with all of its nuance, insight and wit intact. Free of concepts, gimmicks and reimagination, the play stands on timeless themes, authentic characters and the painstaking exploration of every line by a director and cast that took each one to heart.

It’s been 10 years since Shakespeare’s Artistic Director Michael Kahn compressed Henry IV’s two parts into a single production that audiences could experience in one evening. At the time it was the only solution to showing both parts as the single play they were intended to be. But now, in a testament to Kahn’s abiding love of a play he says “completely captures the complexity and diversity of an entire world,” he can bring both parts to the Harman Center in repertory, presenting the entire play on alternate days without sacrificing much of its content.

Part 1 follows the journey of Prince Hal, a reluctant heir to the throne of Henry IV, whose own crown rests uneasy after having committed the cardinal sin of usurping King Richard II. Estranged from his own father, Hal has taken to a life of excess under the wing of a surrogate—Falstaff, a master of lying, cheating, drinking and self-preservation. Hal’s rite of passage traverses the worlds of London’s Eastcheap tavern, King Henry IV’s royal court and ultimately the battlefield of Shrewsbury, where he finally discovers his true self.

Shakespeare Affiliated Artist Stacy Keach returns to the theatre as Falstaff, in a funny, boisterous performance that still manages to hint at an endearing vulnerability behind all the bravado, heavy makeup and padding. Keach uses his fluttering hands, a bouncy elfin walk, and the challenge of maneuvering Falstaff’s girth to embody his character, along with a warm, gruff voice reminiscent of Shakespeare Theatre favorite David Sabin—one of our finest former Falstaffs.

Keach’s Falstaff is joined by a small band of followers who are not so much reveling as enduring their dreary lives of drinking and petty theft. As the feisty Mistress Quickly, their caretaker, Kate Skinner is at once angry, indignant, forgiving and loving. And Brad Bellamy is a standout as Bardolph, bringing a unique comic timing that makes the audience hang on his words and laugh all the harder when his lines finally dribble from his mouth.

As Prince Hal, Matthew Amendt beautifully portrays the prince’s development from a boyish devotee of Falstaff’s debauchery to a clever skeptic who tricks and unsettles his mentor—and finally emerges as a courageous and principled leader ready to lay down his life for king and country.

Hal returns to court and tells his father, “I shall hereafter, my thrice gracious lord, be more myself,” in a moment made even more profound by Ed Gero’s portrayal of King Henry. Gero brings a stern but brooding quality to the character that shows he’s not merely cold and remote, but rather conflicted—grappling with guilt, regret and disappointment. It is Gero’s gift that after rebuking his son, the king’s deep affection and devotion shine through so clearly in their reconciliation.

Prince Hal’s evolution contrasts sharply with the steadiness of his rival, Harry Percy called Hotspur. Played by John Keabler, Hotspur is consistently intense, focused and passionate, whether in politics, war or his heated relationship with his equally impassioned wife, played with catlike physicality by Kelley Curran.

It’s surely no accident that Keabler appears in most of an early scene without a shirt: His six-pack abs underscore Hotspur’s total discipline and training, mirroring his steely mental resolve in a sculpted torso that looks solid as a rock. Conversely, we first meet a childlike Prince Hal dressed in long johns that accentuate a slight physique. But by the play’s end, with both actors clad in suits of armor, Hal’s mental acuity, tenacity and physical stature are more than a match for Hotspur’s.

Their final confrontation comes amid battle scenes choreographed by fight directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. They use the ample stage to not just suggest a battlefield but pretty darn near recreate it, with a dozen dueling pairs of soldiers engaged in elaborate combat. Blows and dodges are fairly convincing, as the newly slain are removed from the stage and others enter and flee in rapid succession.

It’s here, on this imaginary battlefield, that Prince Hal solidifies his father’s throne and accepts the mantel of his legacy—setting the stage for Part 2. The most fortunate theatregoers will return to see how it unfolds in the hands of this remarkable director and cast.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.