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The Son Also Rises 

A drunk, irresponsible prince and a dull king waiting for him to grow up. Sound familiar?

Wednesday, Jul 21 2004
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The only reference to President Bush in Mladen Kiselov's new production of Henry IV is as subtle as it is disorienting. The set is a steel-sided refinery tank, ringed by a catwalk and topped with a blinking red light. The tank splits open dramatically after the first scene, and inside it reveals old furniture, drapes, and a dartboard -- a warm backdrop for court and tavern settings -- which means that for most of the play you can forget the damn tank. In the final scenes it closes again, though, and Prince Hal rises to the throne in a bright-lit, industrial wasteland that might as well be a refining plant in Texas.

If that sounds stark, it is. But Kiselov actually deserves credit for restraint, since other directors across the country have pounced on Henry IV in the last couple of years as a direct parallel to the dynasty of our Presidents Bush. The story of a drunk, irresponsible prince, wasting his youth while his dull father waits for him to grow up, strikes a lot of people as relevant. It doesn't help that the father, Henry IV, gives Hal some special deathbed advice: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." In other words, silence your critics with war.

Of course, Prince Hal becomes Henry V, one of England's most talented kings. George W. Bush will never deserve that comparison. Hal is also about 18 times more interesting than our commander in chief. Kiselov's refinery tank works as a nod toward modern political-corporate dynasties, but he doesn't push the parallel any further, which is wise.

The rest of his show is not contemporary. King Henry looks like a sharp-suited captain of industry, yes, but the upstart lords are mobsters; the women wear office dresses from the late Jazz Age; and Falstaff, Prince Hal's corrupting influence, is a brooding, black hepcat in a graying beard and sunglasses who plays saxophone. Hal smokes cigarettes from a silver case and drinks wine straight from the bottle. Glen Miller and Duke Ellington play on the soundtrack. At the very latest we're in the 1940s.

Kiselov and his cast have a lot of fun with this conceit -- maybe too much fun; some scenes are even silly -- and the three-hour show never drags. The script has been trimmed and adapted by Dakin Matthews, who trimmed and adapted last year's heavily praised and Tony-larded Henry IV at Lincoln Center (with Kevin Kline). Henry IV normally takes at least six hours over two nights to perform, but Matthews knows how to merge Parts 1 and 2 into a single, seamless play.

Of course the story loses something. Characters have been dumped, lines have been traded around, and whole scenes have disappeared or melded into one another. The point is not to give a full-dress Henry IV but to show the arc of Prince Hal's young life in one evening, from dissolute kid to responsible king. As far as that goes, it's a success. Sean Dugan plays a louche, arrogant Hal with a nicely anti-royal flat voice, both crass and conceited. Dugan is the picture of a boy resisting his patrimony, until his slow transformation during the civil war. James Carpenter, as King Henry, is even stronger as the dull father watching his rule fall apart; he manages the right balance of intimate emotion and royal detachment.

Reg E. Cathey is also a clever Falstaff. He finds ways to make the old, besotted knight -- that "sack of humours," that "stuffed cloakbag of guts" -- a convincing, blown-out jazzman. Falstaff is supposed to be a frail and pompous nancy with a huge belly and a tongue for phrasemaking, like Harold Bloom, and it is hard to imagine a seasoned sax player addicted to dry sherry. But Cathey is so good in the comic scenes that you don't mind the experiment, and he rises to eloquence in Falstaff's pathetic speeches.

Graham Shiels plays a one-dimensional Hotspur, the angry rebel, as if Hotspur had no more color in his lines than a steady blast of punk rock rage. But Stacy Ross is amusing as his horny wife, Lady Percy. Liam Vincent overplays as Ned Poins, companion to the prince, but does a funny Earl of Douglas (another rebel against the king). Ron Campbell is a nicely sinister Earl of Worcester (yet another rebel) but a goofy, clownish Pistol (a friend of Falstaff); Hector Correa plays Hotspur's father, the Earl of Northumberland, with grace and flair. Joan Mankin is a beautifully ragged Mistress Quickly, who runs the tavern where Falstaff flirts with whores.

The play, overall, is a brisk, entertaining summary of the real Henry IV, with a few flaws on top of the ones inherent in any adaptation. What it fails to build up to in the final scene -- there's no pathos when Hal snubs Falstaff from his perch on the tank -- Kiselov has to make up for with dramatic stage imagery and sound effects. That's too bad. But then, Henry IV is the greatest history play ever written in English. To me a pretty good version is always better than none at all, even in an election year.

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