BWW Review: Southwest Shakespeare Presents HENRY IV, PART I
Shakespeare sure knew how to please a crowd and give them their penny's or sixpence worth of laughs. Who better to serve his purpose than the mischievous, fast-talking, and irreverent brigand, Sir John Falstaff! The man had the gift of wile and could weasel his way out of any scrape with masterful and perverse twists of logic. Of the three plays in which this legendary character appears, Falstaff's role is perhaps no more crucial than that of companion to Prince Hal, the future king of England, in HENRY IV, PARTS I and II.
Southwest Shakespeare Company's production of PART I, directed by Asia Osborne, Keath Hall imbues the portly renegade with the bombast and comic disposition that stands (necessarily) in marked contrast to his protégé. Falstaff, however, is hardly a one-dimensional figure, more an opportunist who dons masks to fit the circumstances. In this regard, Hall excels in becoming the discrete faces of Falstaff.
If Falstaff were not of such a roguish nature, Tony Latham's nuanced representation of the young and charismatic prince, merrymaking and sowing his oats, would not resonate as well as it does. While Hal indulges in raucous episodes of tomfoolery (at the same time, mind you, that a rebellion against his father is under way), there are yet the makings of a king within him and a certain knowledge that his life of revelry is transitory ~ that his mingling among the people will only inure to his credibility as a sovereign. Latham plays the Prince's pretensions well and so lays the groundwork for his eventual conversion from idler and libertine to dutiful son and wise king ~ and, too, for his ultimate rejection of Falstaff.
The chemistry and the contrast between Hal and Falstaff ~ the rollicking performances of Hall and Latham ~ give this staging its muscle and moments of mirth. They are aided and abetted in their escapades by Falstaff's Eastcheap slapstick gang ~ Bardolph (James Cougar Canfield), Peto (Seth Scott), and Poins (Drew Leatham).
Meanwhile, back at the battlefront, the production takes a less satisfying turn.
On one side, a despondent and troubled King Henry (Eric Schoen), with.little hope that his errant son will reform and stand by his side, has foregone his penitential pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to defend the realm against hostile forces on his border. On the other side, the rebellion is spearheaded by the headstrong and impulsive Henry Percy aka Hotspur (Joshua Murphy), eager to redress his grievances against an ungrateful king.
On both sides, the scenes and characters that deal with military strategy and troop deployments seem not as well conceived, less well staged, more forced and hectic. The climactic battle of Shrewsbury and the pivotal clash between the two Henry's feel awkward and too mechanical. It's here, in the spaces that alternate between those of Hal and Falstaff, that the play falls short of its potential.
Yet, because of its importance in the progression of Shakespeare's English history plays, and despite its flaws, and because of the eloquence with which the words address themes of everlasting relevance, it remains a play to be seen.
HENRY IV, PART I runs through April 7th in Mesa Arts Center's Nesbitt/Elliott Playhouse.
Photo credit to LauraDurant/Durant Photography