A correction was made to this review on May 25, 2004.
Kevin Kline electrified New York as Falstaff in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV.” Jerry Kernion’s Falstaff at the Circle X Theater Co. will remain less known and publicized, but all West Coast devotees of this classic play are likely to find Kernion’s interpretation a rousing experience. He wraps the role around him like a thick, corpulent coat, reveling in its vulgarity, mining all its humorous possibilities. Hero and coward, loyal friend and compulsive liar, he makes a meal of juicy, extravagant 15th century dialogue and carries the show on his ample shoulders.
It’s a tribute to director Tara Flynn that Kernion’s long shadow doesn’t obliterate the production’s other virtues. The play — presented as part of “Shakespeare in American Communities,” a national theater touring initiative and the largest tour of Shakespeare in American history — centers on a forceful father-and-son conflict, pitting King Henry the Fourth (Patrick Gorman) against his wild, wastrel son, Prince Hal (David Paul Wichert).
The aging king, guilt-ridden after murdering Richard II and seizing his throne, has formidable enemies to face: Edmund Mortimer (Mark Jameson), proclaimed by the slain Richard as proper heir to the crown; Glendower (Kevin Fabian), a Welsh rebel; and Hotspur (David Holmes), a young hotheaded knight who embodies the leadership qualities Prince Hal appears to lack.
To totally utilize the wide Circle X area, director Flynn presents scenes on both ends of the stage, and some distantly structured exchanges are difficult to hear. No problem occurs with Falstaff, who stays close to spectators and relates to them on a bold, physically imposing level, but an intimate, well-acted scene between Hotspur and his anxious wife Lady Percy (Sarah Hartmann) would be heightened by more advantageous placement.
Interspersed with all the dark, life-and-death plotting are exuberantly executed sequences of high comedy involving Prince Hal’s relationship with Falstaff. Wichert capably conveys the Prince’s reckless irresponsibility, along with an emerging inner spine of leadership that enables him to fulfill his royal destiny. Although Wichert’s handling of Shakespearean verse occasionally verges into the modern, his portrayal develops and deepens when Hal confronts and finishes off his foes.
As obsessive Hotspur, David Holmes proves a worthy opponent, and his final, fatal collision with Prince Hal is rivetingly directed. Holmes is deeply touching when he utters his last, dying line, “Thou has robbed me of my youth.” In addition to his Falstaff characterization, Kernion serves as fight choreographer, and his battles have sustained sweep and cinematic excitement. The large warehouse stage gives space for swordplay and includes ramps to accommodate the clashing soldiers. An encounter between Sir Walter Blunt (Scott Plusquellec) and Archibard, Earl of Douglas (Peter Friedrich) is notably well done, since they demonstrate such leering, ecstatically bloodthirsty lust for battle.
Patrick Gorman doesn’t always articulate in long speeches, but he palpably projects regal authority and despair. Mark Jameson’s Mortimer is impressive, and Kevin Fabian, Thomas Craig Elliott, Hugh O’Gorman, Wayne Salvatore, Doug Salvatore, Holly Gabrielson and David Wilcox richly re-create the Shakespeare sound and style.
Tim Labor contributes music that enhances big dramatic moments, and Kristie Roldan’s lighting is a large plus, wisely bathing Falstaff in brightness so we can touch and taste the extent of his triumph.