Henry IV Part I, which opened at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre last week, is superb. (Click here for DCMTA’s review.)
This production, starring Ed Gero, is equal to any I’ve seen. In fact, it is easily the match of the much-touted Henry that was staged at Lincoln Center in 2003, which combined Parts I and II and starred Kevin Kline as Falstaff.
Much of the credit for the current success goes directly to Gero, who this time around, is Falstaff himself. (The last time he appeared in Henry IV was five years ago, when he played the lesser role of the monarch for whom the play is named.)
The character—in case you’ve forgotten your college classes or have avoided the history plays altogether—is a boisterous but dissolute knight in the late 14th century, when rival dynasties fought for control of what is now Great Britain.
When we meet him, at the beginning of the play, he is the leader of a bunch of layabouts, one of whom happens to be Prince Hal (Avery Whitted), the king’s son. A motley crew, they hang out at a Cheapside tavern, drink prodigiously and—when they run out of cash—rob pilgrims along the road.
Meanwhile, there are battles waging in the west and north and rebellion is afoot.
Gero is fantastic. His Falstaff is larger than life as he shifts from preposterous heights to the lows of dissolution and despair. Watching his face and stumbling gait—his sly, then stricken look when he knows that he’s been caught—is like peering, layer by layer, inside the character’s soul.
Nowhere is his talent as clearly on display as in the moment when Falstaff—who has been both father figure and hero to the prince—realizes that he has been dismissed. When Prince Hal announces that he must return to the king, Gero registers the full weight of the loss. There is more than a hint of Lear in this scene. It is, perhaps, an augur of a role to come.
But remorse, for Falstaff, doesn’t last long. He quickly reverts to laughter, along with cakes and ale. Gero, who is one of our leading Shakespearean actors, inhabits the role as though he were born inside it, bellying up to the bar and keeping the audience in howls of laughter.
That laughter is no accident. Shakespeare knew his audience. He particularly understood the role of comedy in tragedy. He knew that comedy is the best way, if not the only way, to get audiences to sit up and pay attention.
Drinking was not only part of comedy—and all the clowns in Shakespeare are occasionally drunk—but it was what paid the bills. That’s because the Globe, like every theater of its time, sold alcohol to its customers. In Elizabethan times, everyone drank, and very few frowned on the practice. (The frowning was left to the Puritans who when they got their way a bit later, banned acting as well as drinking.)
When Falstaff hoists a pitcher or two—or loudly snores or belches—he is preaching to the choir, reminding those in the audience that he is one of them.
Like most drunks, he’s also a liar. But his lies—unlike those of the political leaders of the time—have no consequences. Falstaff’s imitation of the king, wearing an inverted cushion as a crown, is comic and wise, but it’s play-acting. Both he and the young prince know it.
Although Gero’s gusto as clown-in-chief is what sets this Henry apart, there’s more than Falstaff in this production. There are 14 actors in the cast, playing 20 roles, and while it’s impossible to do all of them justice, all demand a mention.
Avery Whitted is truly amazing as Hal. This is a kid who’s having a teenage rebellion without actually doing any harm. Yes, he’s a bit of a wastrel, but he’s got integrity. Just as he stops short of any criminal activity, he spins around on a dime when he’s called to save his country.
Peter Crooks gives a fine performance as the King who doesn’t really want a war, but is goaded into it by supposed allies. (He’d rather do a crusade, or something equally noble.)
Kate Eastwood Norris is terrific as the sharp-tongued Mistress Quickly, keeper of the ‘bawdy house’ and dispenser of the booze. (Falstaff’s favorite is sack, which turns out to be a blend of ale and brandy, much like sherry today, but drunk by the pitcher.) Norris is also outstanding as one of the brave soldiers sent to war.
And while Mistress Quickly is a virago, tolerating no tabs, Maribel Martinez is the opposite. She is hilariously funny as Lady Percy, wife of Hotspur, who is the rebel leader, and sex kitten par excellence. Jordan Lee is her sister-in-law, angelic by contrast, comforting a husband who cannot understand her, but who loves her nevertheless.
Lord Percy, who is known as Hotspur, is played by Tyler Fauntleroy. He’s as hot-tempered as his name suggests, out to take the land that he and his conniving aunt believe is rightfully theirs. Todd Scofield, Sam Midwood, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, and U. Jonathan Toppo all serve wonderfully in supporting roles.
The director of this Henry IV is Rosa Joshi. A newcomer to DC, she is co-founder of Seattle’s Upstart Crow Collective, where she is best-known for her interest in gender-free casting.
Unlike many of her peers, Joshi has avoided the trap of having women actors play the roles of men or dress in androgynous suits. Instead, she has simply switched the roles.
As a result, Jazmine Stewart, who is a female Poins, is a lanky teenage girl. Sporting torn panty hose and long braids, she is a perfect sidekick for Hal.
Worcester, on the other hand, is now Hotspur’s aunt. As played by a bitchy, thin-lipped Naomi Jacobson, she is decked out in military attire, wearing red spiked heels so high and sharp they look like they’d be useful in battle. This is one tough broad. She’s also a mistress of deceit. (Unlike Falstaff’s lies, hers will result in civil war and thousands dead on a bloody field.)
The battlefield has the formality of ballet. As choreographed by U. Jonathan Toppo, who doubles as two of the supporting characters, the fight scenes are beautifully executed. The pounding of fists and the parrying of swords create the illusion of battle without the intrusion of realism.
In Shakespeare’s world, looking for realism is a fool’s errand. This is a Henry for all seasons and for all kinds of audiences. Don’t miss it.
Running Time: Two hours and 40 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Movement Direction and Choreography by Alice Gosti
Scenic Design by Sara Ryung Clement
Costume Design by Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design by Jesse Belsky
Original Music and Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan