Saturday, November 20, 2010

Henry IV, Part 2 at the American Shakespeare Center

"We have heard the chimes at midnight..."

What a delight it is that there are more and more opportunities to see several of the works of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries that are rarely performed.   It is wonderful to have the opportunity to see Henry IV, Part 2 at the Blackfrier's Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.    The American Shakespeare Center is in the midst of presenting both of Shakespeare's history tetralogies.   The Henry VI Plays and Richard III are being presented during the winter Actor's Renaissance Season and the tetralogy that begins with Richard II and ends with Henry V in the summer and fall season, with one play presented each year.  

The history plays can seem daunting, so many Earls and Lords to keep track of, so much difficulty for a contemporary audience to figure out which characters are on which side of the various warring factions.  But, fear not, gentle reader, the American Shakespeare Center recognizes that not everyone will have seen Richard II and Henry IV, Part 1.    First, the Elizabethan costumes by Jenny McNee clearly delinate  the class and rank of the characters and by certain additions who is on which side in the civil conflict.   The production has also thoughtfully provided a cheat sheet to catch you up on the earlier installments.  

Quite literally there is a sheet hanging from the balcony with the pertinent plot points on it as you settle into your seat.

The Thespian subscribes to the podcasts of the American Shakespeare Center and highly recommends the Backstage Pass and Dr. Ralph Presents lectures and discussions on each play in the season.   They can provide preparation for a production one may not be familiar with or provide thoughtful reflection on a performance one has attended.    These podcasts as well as the director's notes provide good insight into this wonderful production.

For those not familiar with the story, Henry IV, Part 2 is a play that is about the end of an era and the rise of a new one.   It is about facing old age.    Yes, the jollities of Sir John Falstaff and his merry band are still hilarious, but, this is a play in which Sir John Falstaff faces both his age and his gamble upon his friendship with Prince Hal that once Hal is King he will be raised to a position of prominence and then all his worries will be assuaged and his mounting debts paid.

The strengths of the American Shakespeare Center's acting company includes their clarity with the text and the ease in which they interact with the audience who surround them on three sides and on stage with the lights kept on as they would have been in Shakespeare's days.    The performances are universally strong.

Patrick Midgley portrays the growing pains of Prince Hal.   Hal is seasoning through his war experiences, yet still playful and intimate with his true friend and father figure, Sir John Falstaff, played jubiliantly by James Keegan.   Mr. Keegan is a naturally gregarious stage presence, yet over the course of the play slowly, gently breaks the audience's heart.  

This duality of comedy and pathos his shared by Falstaff's compatriots.   Mistress Quickly, played by Alison Glenzer, pulls at the heart as Falstaff's steadfast dear friend yet is rollicking in broad comedy when needed.   Ginna Hoben as Doll Tearsheet, lets the love she bears the aging Falstaff rise to the surface with nary a word needed.    But, cross her as the bailiff does and she can be a little hellcat.

In the court, Rene Thornton, Jr. as the ill and dying King Henry IV commands the stage in the little amount of time this title character actually appears.    Mr. Thornton will convince you his lungs are ravaged, but when Prince Hal mistakes his father for dead and takes the crown - watch out - the old lion still can roar through his pains.

The most famous scene in the play is when Prince Hal, newly crowned King Henry V, cruelly rejects his old friend, Falstaff.    The scene is well staged and, even though the audience knows it is coming, it is stunning in its brutality while still maintaining sympathy for both characters.   It is testament to Shakepeare's writing, Ralph Alan Cohen's directing and Mr. Midgley and Mr. Keegan's acting that one understands the new King's decision and can come away devastated by it, yet understanding of why it must be done.

Mr. Keegan deftly delivers the epilogue as himself bringing a fitting curtain call to his portrayal of Sir John Falstaff in all four of the plays in which the character appears.

To end on a humorous note, it is traditional for one or more members of the acting company to greet the audience and explain why the lights are on, some audience are on the stage and that the audience may be called upon to play along from time to time.    In this production we are blessed by the decision to grant this job to the dualing Bardolphs.    Jeremiah Davis as Lord Bardolph and Bob Jones as the comic Bardolph, servant to Falstaff, should form a comedy team and take this act on the road.

Henry IV, Part 2 is being performed in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, John O'Keefe's Wild Oats and Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West through November 28, 2010.   For performance times and ticket information on these shows and the upcoming Holiday and Actor's Renaissance seasons please visit

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