Though it's Shakespeare's most popular history play, Henry IV always winds up being about the Bard's most beloved comic character, the portly drunk Sir John Falstaff. And as intriguing an an individual production may be, it's Falstaff we go to see, Falstaff who makes or breaks the show.
So before a more highfalutin discussion of the current California Shakespeare Festival production, let me say that Joe Vincent's Falstaff is reason enough to go. And then let me add that the production as a whole (directed by Stephen Hollis) is uneven and laced with what appear to be deliberate anachronisms, as though Hollis were trying to accomplish the unthinkable and upstage Falstaff.
The story is familiar. King Henry IV (Robert Sicular), who snatched the crown by deposing the weak and depraved Richard II, is depressed. He has gathered his nobles to tell them that he plans a restorative pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But before he can finish enumerating the details, word arrives that yet another rebellion is forming.
Alas, this sets the king practically to whining. Not only is he exhausted by constant battles to keep the throne, but his son and heir, Prince Hal (Don Burroughs), is making a name for himself as a drunk and a wastrel, while the young Harry Percy, known as Hotspur (Martin Kildare), has been racking up victory after victory in defense of the kingdom. There's a catch to Hotspur's triumphs, though: He wants to use the prisoners he's taken to ransom his brother-in-law, Edmund Mortimer (James Carpenter), whom the king considers a traitor.
The stage is thus set for yet another civil war. While Hal waits for the fireworks to starts, he hangs out at a pub in Cheapside, sort of the Tenderloin of 14-century London. There he drinks with his buddy Falstaff, careful all the while not to break law. He informs us in a soliloquy that he's behaving badly on purpose so that when he shapes up he'll look especially good by contrast. It's a lovely example of adolescent rationale and sets up one of the play's central conflicts, between father and son.
The usual traitors challenge the king; the ususal battles are fought; Prince Hal participates in a robbery (which is very nearly big trouble, but whose consequences he is able to escape by returning the money that's stolen). But just as Hal's getting in deeper with the bad company, the rebellion starts, forcing him to straighten up and fly right. The battle begins, the enemy is engaged and then vanquished. Hal fights Hotspur and prevails, and, for the moment, all is well.
The oddments and anomalies in this otherwise sturdy production are strewn about in ways that seem intentional. The set (Jeff Hunt) - a basic brown castle spray-painted with a band of electric blue - looks shabby, flat, and strangely garish in the early evening light. In the second act, however, it undergoes a transformation: The backdrop is whisked away, revealing the East Bay landscape beyond. On the growing darkness - complimented by the yellow/blue lighting scheme (David K.H. Elliott) - both stage and action are suddenly deepened. The drama becomes focused and three-dimensional, and the play itself seems to cohere.
Then there's Prince Hal's anachronistic costume: T-shirt and jeans striaght from The Gap. As the only player in contemporary dress (costumes are by Karen Lim), he functions less as a character and more as a distraction. When he later enters dressed like everyone else - which comes as no surprise, of course - we feel almost pounded over the head by the transition from teen-ager-from-hell to dutiful son of King Henry IV.
Every time we adjust one of these anomalies (and I'm assuming the set designer is aware of what his stage looks like) anothe pops up. Hotspur's accent comes immediately to mind, a kind of quasi-Irish/Scottish hybrid brogue that absolutely no one else uses, making me wonder where in God's name he picked it up.
The show is most at home with itself in the scenes in the Cheapside pub. Vincent's sublime Falstaff, that "mountain of flesh," looms in the doorway, white hair standing on end, for a flawless Hollywood-esque entrance. The errant knight is wily and cheerfully inventive as he spins ever more exaggerated tales of his own brave deeds. Vincent commands the stage with his every appearance, pure and simple.
Robert Sinclair makes King Henry stuffy and pompous, a man whose lifelong obsession has been the crown, who apparently has no idea how to relate to anyone, much less his rebellious son. He's so thoroughly unapproachable his performance borders on self-parody until Hal comes around. Then the king practically blubbers his gratitude, making him suddenly vulnerable and immensely touching.
As Hal in the aforementioned jeans and T-shirt, Don Burroughs is eerily reminiscent of a James Dean-like teen-ager in a B-movie. His perfomance both as a wastrel and then as dutiful son seems self-conscious and artificial, although when he emerges in his "true" identity as the Prince of Wales, he takes on the requisite stature.
Once you get passed his accent, Martin Kildare's Hotspur has spirit and and a few unexpected moves that keep us watching him even if it's just to see what he might do next. His scenes with his wife, played lovingly by Domenique Lozano, are sensual and tender.
Michael Santo, as Bardolph is a master of physical comedy. He's the perfect foil, playing Stan Laurel to Vincent's Oliver Hardy. As Poins, Tommy A. Gomez is properly impish and resourceful without stealing focus. Wanda McCaddon's Mistress Quickly is warm, funny, and absolutely delightful.
Which leaves me wondering all the more about those pesky anachronisms. It's as though director Hollis set out to make the play odd so that he could rescue it in the nick of time.
Henry IV, Part One runs through Sun, Sept. 10, at the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda; call (510)548-9666.