“Henry IV, Part I” may not feature Shakespeare’s transcendent poetry nor stimulate profound insights into the human condition. But as an examination of a society at all its levels, from the corridors of power to the refuges of the poor, it’s foremost in the canon, offering multiple opportunities for comedy, psychological drama and spectacle all at once. Themes of disease and human folly dominate A Noise Within’s lavish, emotionally precise revival.
At rise the troubled King (Robertson Dean) soaks one foot as the other is tenderly bandaged. Those familiar with his backstory (a pre-theater brush-up wouldn’t hurt) will realize he’s suffering not gout but guilt, over his long-ago deposition of Richard II which has fatally poisoned the kingdom. The magisterial, beautifully spoken Dean places Henry’s frailty where it belongs, in his spirit rather than his limbs, as he seeks to bring to heel the family Percy, former allies now seeking greater sway (nice choice of North Country accents to set them apart from the ruling class).
From the stars to the mud: In an Eastcheap tavern, dissolute Sir John Falstaff (Geoff Elliott, co-helmer with Julia Rodriguez-Elliott) marshals his hangers-on in an agenda of petty theft, wenching and drinking, not to mention lying about the other three. In contrast to the austere court, production genially brings out the underclass’s realistic details and physical life, up to and including filling, and spilling, chamber pots.
Elliott’s avoirdupois and bravado could be ratcheted up some, but this Falstaff is a winning, plain-spoken realist well aware of the idiocies of politics, especially the politics of war. His comic biz during the Shrewsbury battle is priceless, and there’s poignancy in his pressing a line of unfortunates into “food for powder.”
Prod foregoes the usual father-figure tug-o’-war over Prince Hal, as the intense, ever-so-distant demeanor of Freddy Douglas marks the lad as very much his own man. Motives for so long dallying among the riffraff are kept mysterious yet thesp leaves no doubt they exist, and he renders natural and true the decision finally to redeem his birthright. In this Hal we see both hints of the noble Henry V to come and his dad’s neurotic streak; clearly, a Bolingbroke family purging isn’t yet in the cards.
Douglas’ brilliantly articulated, thoughtful interp contrasts perfectly with J. Todd Adams’ equally passionate yet all-sensual Hotspur.
Any of the principal performances would be reason enough to take in this production, and there’s more: Soojin Lee’s sumptuous costumes, which not only accentuate class distinctions but actually look lived in; Peter Gottlieb’s luscious and often witty lighting effects; and Ken Merckx’s fight direction, actually making sense of Shrewsbury by highlighting the human behavior within it.
Staging is mostly efficient but for too many scenes beginning and lingering against the thrust stage’s distant rear wall. Seating the King there for much of his denunciation of Hal accentuates complacency rather than fever; only when he moves down and away, forcing the boy to plead in his wake, does the scene take off.