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BWW Reviews: Shakespeare Theatre Company's HENRY IV, PART 2 is a Fine Production of an Uninspired Play

It must be established that whatever criticisms I may have with Henry IV, Part 2 is not with the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production but with William Shakespeare's play itself. In fact, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's revival of Henry IV, Part 2 is a fine production filled with terrific acting and some wonderful ensemble moments. Nevertheless, that doesn't stop the play from failing to achieve the dramatic excellence of its prequel.

Henry IV, Part 2 picks up right where Part 1 ended following Hotspur's defeat. His father, Henry Percy (Kevin McGuire), has decided to avenge his son's death by mounting another military challenge against King Henry (Edward Gero). After an impassioned plea from Hotspur's widow, Lady Percy (Kelley Curran), he instead retreats to Scotland. That however does not stop the Archbishop of York (Steve Pickering), Sir John Coleville (John Keabler), Lords Hastings (Aaron Gaines) and Russell (Joel David Santner) along with Thomas Mowbray (Rhett Henckel) from launching their own rebellion against the King.

To combat them, King Henry has ordered Sir John Falstaff (Stacy Keach) to recruit troops and join his son, Prince John (Patrick Vaill) in battle. At first, Falstaff ignores the King's orders. It's only after Prince Hal (Matthew Amendt) warns Falstaff against disregarding the King's wishes that he goes to the country to recruit soldiers. Meanwhile at court, news of another rebellion has gravely affected King Henry's health. With the specter of death surrounding him, Henry remains troubled over Hal's continued acquaintance with Falstaff and what that could mean for his ascension to the throne.

Historically, Henry IV, Part 2 has been seen as the weaker of the Henry IV plays and audiences will see that here. Whereas Part 1 featured three stories all tied together by the fight for England, Part 2 doesn't really find its identity until Act II during the scenes between Henry and Hal in the King's bedchamber. What this production of Henry IV, Part 2 does do is allow the terrific ensemble to shine in both comedic and dramatic moments.

Amendt continues to dazzle as Prince Hal in Part 2. His charisma easy wins the audience over and watching his journey from tavern-fly to monarch is something to behold. In Part 2 we start to see Henry's direct influence on Hal, and Amendt's measured performance shows us a prince who doesn't want the crown to usurp his identity. As Shakespeare makes quite clear later in the play; the crown does change the man.

Henry IV, Part 2 does feature one of Shakespeare's greatest lines, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," which is uttered by Henry, once again magnificently portrayed by Gero. Similar to Part 1, Henry isn't the largest role despite being the focus of the rebellion and origin for Hal's continued coming-of-age. That doesn't stop Gero from allowing the audience to a see a Henry racked by anxiety, fear and even guilt. Not only does Hal's behavior and the Yorkshire Rebellion trouble him, but memories of Richard II as well. Gero's excellent in showcasing how these combine to weaken Henry with every passing moment.

One of the dramatic highpoints of the show was Curran's heartbreaking portrayal of Lady Percy. Her speech in Scene III, following Henry Percy's consideration of another rebellion to avenge her husband's death, was tragically compelling. Curran is beautiful and to see such a youthful woman wearing black in mourning is a striking image. When she questions Henry Percy's motives we see that even in her grief she's able to recognize the pointlessness of another military folly simply as a vendetta.

Keach continues to generate some of the productions biggest laughs with his Falstaff. Part 2 is interesting because we get to see a seedier side of Falstaff, one that's starting to fool less and less people. What is marvelous about Keach's acting abilities is how there's some hint of this in Part 1 and yet it's easy to downplay these moments. When we see Falstaff's mischievous actions in Part 2, we're somehow not exactly surprised.

Special recognition goes to Ted van Griethuysen and Bev Appleton for their hilarious performances as Justices Shallow and Silence, two old country acquaintances of Falstaff. They along with Joel David Santner, Brendon Schaefer, Luis Alberto Gonzalez, Matthew McGee and Chris Genebach, portraying the men of the country, provide the comedic relief of this production. Falstaff goes to recruit soldiers, starting with those who can't afford to buy their way out of service. These men are as ideal for military service as the Marx Bros. Yet, each of them gives a nugget of comedic gold when inspected by Falstaff. The scene in the country is sheer joy!

Michael Kahn's direction continues to be excellent. Once again aided by Alexander Dodge's brilliant set design, Kahn's direction keeps the production flowing. Despite the set being the same, Dodge's angling and movement of the set add a different level of depth from what we see in Part 1. Dodge has littered dead leaves and bare tree branches across the set to mark the passage of time.

Ann Hould-Ward's costumes are in-style with the period of the piece. However, she must be applauded for the subtle way with which she accents Hal's royalty. Whereas in Part 1 Hal wears a plain leather jacket, in Part 2 Hould-Ward has dressed him in a purple jacket. Purple, of course, being the color of royalty.

When the Shakespeare Theatre Company's revival of Henry IV, Part 1 ended I could hardly contain my excitement for Part 2. Sadly my enthusiasm wasn't fully realized. This terrific ensemble of actors, under Michael Kahn's skilled direction, makes the best of a weak play. Since Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 are being performed in repertoire; both parts should be seen if possible. While Part 2 may not be Shakespeare's best play, it still is worth seeing because of the caliber of the performances onstage.

Run time is two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission for Henry IV, Part 2. Both Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 are scheduled to play thru June 7th at The Shakespeare Theatre Company 610 F Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004. To purchase tickets and for specific performance dates of each show, please call 202-547-1122 or purchase them online.

Photo: Matthew Amendt as Prince Hal in the Shakespeare Theatre Company production of Henry IV, Part 2. Photo by Scott Suchman.

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