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Kevin Sprague
Henry Clark, Johnny Lee Davenport and Jonathan Epstein in Jonathan Epstein's adaptation of Shakespeare's 'King Henry IV,' parts I and II.

Review II: Henry IV (and IV) — Entertaining, not insightful

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By Saturday, Aug 16, 2014 Arts & Entertainment

Henry IV, Parts I & II

By William Shakespeare, adapted by Jonathan Epstein

Directed by Jonathan Epstein

Editor’s Note: Two Henry’s, one play. So why not two reviews? This is Bob Goepfert’s; the other (Review I), by J. Peter Bergman. We leave it to our readers to decide which one had it right. But first, you have to go see the play at Shakespeare & Company.

LENOX, Mass. – Shakespeare & Company is offering a new adaptation of “Henry IV” which combines Shakespeare’s two plays, “Henry IV,” Parts I and II into a single three hour production.

As a history drama the adaptation by Jonathan Epstein is excellent story-telling.   By combining the two works in a single production we see the journey made by the three central characters – the reigning king Henry IV, his son Hal – the future Henry V, and the lovable rogue Falstaff.

Not only is there is a sense of completion at the end of this production, it effectively sets the table for “Henry V,” on which the smart money in the Berkshires is betting to be on Shakespeare & Company’s 2015 schedule.

“Henry IV” is the more popular of the two plays, but it still is rarely produced.   Its central theme tells the story of Prince Hal and how he must decide between two father figures.

One is the stern, commanding Henry, who happens to be an ineffective king. He came to the throne through a devious murder and his less-than-authentic right to the throne has spurred rebellion throughout the kingdom.

Malcolm Ingram (Falstaff), with Benjamin Epstein, Kelly Kilgore, Timothy Adam Venable, Michael F. Toomey and Ariel Bok.

Malcolm Ingram (Falstaff), with Benjamin Epstein, Kelly Kilgore, Timothy Adam Venable, Michael F. Toomey and Ariel Bok.

Hal’s other role model is Falstaff, a free-spirit con-man, who is very good at what he does – which is drinking, wenching and telling tall tales. He is perceived by the king as a terrible role model for an heir to the throne.

But the truth is while Henry can teach Hal the politics of power, Falstaff is an expert at the understanding the reality of life. He can instruct Hal on how to survive in a hostile world.

Complicating the emotional conflicts of Hal is that one of the leaders of the current rebellion is Hotspur, a man Hal’s age who has the begrudging admiration of Henry. Henry wishes his wanton son could be more like Hotspur and is not reluctant to taunt Hal with the comparison.

Clearly the sprawling dramas are complicated – politically and emotionally. Amazingly, though Epstein has reduced the material from about seven hours total to three hours he does not deprive the work of clarity.

The first half of act one seems rushed and it would be more comfortable to have more information on the subplots and individual characters – but the work sorts itself out and the power themes become easy to follow.

Timothy Adam Venable as Henry IV. Photo: Kevin Sprague

Timothy Adam Venable as Hotspur. Photo: Kevin Sprague

However, what is missing and not to be found is an emotional connection between the three central characters. The exception is Falstaff, who clearly loves Hal. And, even though it might have stated out for Falstaff’s own gain, the connection the rogue has for the prince is genuine. In contrast, the father-son relationship between the two Henry’s is cold and based on purely practical and political concerns.

The great loss in the presentation is the lack of love Hal should have for Falstaff. Throughout the play it seems Hal regards the man as a fool rather than a mentor. This negates the potentially heartbreak when at end of the play, the now King Henry V rejects and banishes the man who loves him.

Played by Henry Clarke, Hal is a practical man, even as a wild youth. He always seems calculated even when being irresponsible. Clarke is an impressive presence on stage and is confident with the language of Shakespeare, but he does not find the nuances within the character. He takes a direct path from bad boy to ruler without much self-reflection. Though Clarke is honest to his choices as an actor, you long for him to show that moment when Hal realizes who he really is and what he has to sacrifice to rule as the King of England.

Robert Lohbauer and Malcolm Ingram. Photo; Kevin Sprague

Robert Lohbauer and Malcolm Ingram. Photo; Kevin Sprague

This void makes Falstaff the most interesting character in the play, and the man is, indeed, a tragic figure. Malcom Ingram gives an understated performance as the self-interested round rogue. His choice not to be robust or bigger than life takes a while to warm up to, but once we realize that man’s aversion to truth is more honest than those who lie for political gain we honor his spirit.

We laugh at Falstaff trying to take credit for killing Hotspur but we are repelled by Hal going back on his word on his peace treaty with the rebels. Ingram makes Falstaff the most honest man on stage because he alone is comfortable with his personal sense of morality.

As an adapter Epstein does an amazing job. As an actor he is brilliant in creating an imposing Henry who dominates every scene in which he appears.

Benjamin Epstein and Jonathan Epstein. Photo: Kevin Sprague

Benjamin Epstein and Jonathan Epstein. Photo: Kevin Sprague

 

However, as a director he has flaws. One of which is trying the make the story universal and timeless. He plays with periods introducing computers and permitting characters to take selfies on cell phones. Most disconcerting is the use of both modern pistols and swords in the battle scene. It takes you out of the moment wondering why someone would risk injury by a sword when you can have victory by firing a gun.

Epstein is good at telling a dramatic story well. However, he forgets that the plays of Shakespeare are not about the stories. Rather they are eternal because of the inner truths discovered by the characters. Had this production had more emotional insight it would be a great night of theater rather than an interesting evening of entertainment.

“Henry IV, Parts I & II,” produced by Shakespeare & Company, Lenox. Mass. Performed in repertory through August 31 at the Tina Packer Playhouse.   413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org. or for tickets consult The Berkshire Edge calendar.

 

 


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