Folger's Powerful Cast Reigns in Nuanced 'Henry IV'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Falstaff is everything we love in a rogue, and in Folger Theatre's lucid and likable new "Henry IV, Part 1," Delaney Williams wears him as the closest thing to an endearing second skin.

Equal parts scoundrel, souse, coward and liar, Falstaff is a walking catalogue of bad habits. It is, though, his irrepressible disdain for responsibility that makes him such a magnetic character, both for us and for Prince Hal, the wayward scion so eager for a slack alternative to his humorless father, Henry IV.

With Williams fashioning Falstaff as beguilingly rough-hewn, and Tom Story allowing in his sensitive-seeming Hal an occasional glimpse of entitlement, the Folger production is perched on a compelling axis. The contributions of Rick Foucheux, as the king, and David Graham Jones, portraying Hotspur, Hal's hyper-motivated rival, bring intriguing depths to the intense whirlpool of male conflict swirling around this play.

Although "Henry IV, Part 1" chiefly concerns the metamorphosis of Hal -- later to be crowned Henry V -- from shirker to paragon, this staging by Paul Mason Barnes is just as notable for its clear explication of how personal grievances drive public turmoil in Henry IV's England. The rift between king and son mirrors the strife dividing the kingdom. It's as if the realm were a gigantic feuding family, torn apart by doubts over the usurping Henry's legitimacy and by former allies' simmering resentments at the king's broken commitments and military missteps.

Barnes, who heads the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, Minn., has staged Shakespeare in many parts of the country but is only now making a directorial foray into Washington. It's a good beginning. The incisive personalities of "Henry IV, Part 1" can sometimes be muted in the clangs of steel and parades of seething noblemen. But Barnes uses the intimate Folger playhouse to ensure that we listen to all of the characters. This is not Shakespeare history play as panoramic epic, so much as a series of close-ups.

The play follows in chronology "Richard II," in which Henry Bolingbroke takes eloquent Richard's crown and life. The work is laced here with a sense of a rueful morning after. And succession to the throne seems fraught. On designer Tony Cisek's angled platform, smeared with what looks like dried mud and blood, the production lays out a contrast between the coldness of Hal's relationship with the king -- who articulates the wish that go-getter Hotspur were his heir -- and Hal's warmer, slumming apprenticeship under Falstaff.

The bedrock comedy scenes of "Henry IV, Part 1," set in the Eastcheap tavern where Hal playfully torments Falstaff -- that "huge hill of flesh" -- and carouses with other disreputable types, are staged with vigor. These scenes are dependent, of course, on a formula of charm and dissipation by a production's Falstaff, for he must be the slightly reprehensible life of the party. While mountainous Sir Jack will be brought to his knees in "Henry IV, Part 2," in which Hal ultimately casts him aside, the first part traces the fortunate hitching of his shaky wagon to Hal's rising star.

Williams, who last season played to excellent effect the pathetic, vengeful Eddie Carbone in Arena Stage's revival of "A View From the Bridge," makes for a sly, good-humored Falstaff. He may be the butt of the joke, but you get the feeling that he understands more clearly than the others how useful it is to take the ribbing from a future king. And yet, a tension remains in Williams's performance: This Jack seems forever in danger of getting too comfortable.

The scene in the pub of Falstaff and Hal taking turns pretending to be the king reveals in splendid manner the ambiguousness of their camaraderie. In Story's Hal, you can sense how Falstaff moves him but also kindles regret -- the knowledge that Hal is not long for his company and this unceremonious court.

Anne Stone's effusive Mistress Quickly and Matthew R. Wilson's steady Ned Poins help to give Eastcheap a more rounded vitality. It's a mark of the staging that a number of actors in smaller roles allow the canvas to appear so well-painted. They include Marcus Kyd's Mortimer, Jan Knightley's Worcester and David Bryan Jackson's Glendower. (The leathery masculinity of Kate Turner-Walker's costumes is another strength here.)

The evening's most unconventional performance may be that of Jones, who is a Hotspur of a different temperature. We're used to this young man of action at a constant and considerable boil. Jones cools him off, portraying him as a credible alternative to Hal -- even if a somewhat self-important irritant to the other nobles. At times, Jones has a tendency, in a master-thespian sort of way, to overdo the manual embroidery. But his take on the character also permits an audience to mourn what befalls Hotspur in the battlefield duel that crystallizes Hal's kingly trajectory.

The duels themselves are not all they could be. The fighting in last season's superb "Macbeth" was so excitingly conceived that Folger has to live with a consequential uptick in expectations. In a host of other categories, however, this stab at Shakespeare satisfies them.

Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Paul Mason Barnes. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Kate Turner-Walker; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Veronika Vorel; fight director, Casey Kaleba; dramaturg, Michele Osherow. With Brian Hemmingsen, Ellen Adair, Patrick McAndrew, Steve Beall, Mark Krawczyk, Kevin Pierson, Kaitlin Manning, Keith E. Irby. About 2 hours 55 minutes. Through Nov. 16 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit

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