The American National Theater may have been formed to give the Kennedy Center a good shaking up and, eventually, send some salutary shock waves throughout the American theater as a whole. But its inaugural production, Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I," barely ripples the curtains in the Eisenhower Theater.
To expect ANT, as it has been affectionately dubbed, to open on a note of raging triumph is to indulge in dreams of overnight success that obtain only in vintage Hollywood movies. Still, a snarling, defiant failure would be preferable to this tedious production, which is no better, no worse than scores of mildly soporific dramas that played the center under the old regime.
If it's out with the old regime, however, we're going to have to wait awhile before we get a bead on the new. Whatever thought and passion have gone into the making of this "Henry," precious little crosses the footlights. Occasionally, there is an arresting image to catch the eye. But the production, erratically directed by Timothy S. Mayer, offers nothing to stir the heart or activate the funny bone.
Both possibilities loom large in "Henry," which officially began its five-week run Wednesday night. Shakespeare is showing us the transformation of Prince Hal (John Heard) from a drunken wastrel who squanders his youth in drunken pranks to the incipient monarch who triumphs in battle and promises fresh glory for the English throne. The play is fairly evenly split between court and tavern, affairs of state and practical jokes, high emotions and low humor. And, of course, dead center is Falstaff (John McMartin), one of Shakespeare's extravagant creations.
A mound of wine-spotted blubber, Falstaff alone should fill the stage. As if he weren't corpulent enough, he is forever inflating himself further with bald-faced lies and outlandish boasts. Let him tell the tale and he fought off a band of highwaymen single-handedly, when, in fact, he took to the woods as fast as his heels could carry him. He claims a kinship with Mars, but put him on a battlefield and he's afraid even the corpses will strike back. Shameless, yes, but also shamelessly theatrical.
As McMartin plays him, however, he's as tame as the twinkle in Santa's eye. The character's gargantuan appetites have been curbed and his belly-shaking gusto reduced to cute displays of bonhomie. McMartin doesn't roar; he bleats and whimpers. His gestures are curiously dainty, his step deceptively light. In short, a colossus has been whittled down to an elf.
Actually, McMartin is doing double duty. When he is not Falstaff, he is playing King Henry, Prince Hal's father, and expressing grave concern over his prodigal son and the rebellion that is gathering force in the hinterlands. Theoretically, it makes sense to have one actor double in the parts, which represent, after all, the two father figures in Prince Hal's life -- the one tugging him downward, the other urging him upward.
In practice, it makes for some interminable scene changes, while McMartin doffs his regal robes and dons the rubberized wig and padded paunch that turn him into Falstaff. McMartin simply doesn't possess the versatility to make it work. The tone of dry irony he imparts to the king keeps washing over into his performance as Falstaff. When, in a moment of tavern abandon, Falstaff takes it upon himself to impersonate the king, the actor is in the awkward position of having to parody his own performance.
A lackluster Falstaff, however, is only the most immediate cause for dismay. Nowhere else in the production is there a performance to offset the dull mediocrity that blankets the stage like plaster dust. Heard cuts a handsome enough figure as Prince Hal, but he is surly in his jocular scenes and strident when summoned to nobler purposes. True to his excitable nature, Hotspur (Bruce McGill) foams at the mouth, hurls chairs and even upends tables. In both physique and temperament, McGill bears a distressing resemblance to Gorgeous George on a rampage.
Apparently, the desire to reclaim Shakespeare for Americans and forge a native Shakespearean acting tradition distinct from the British was one of the justifications for launching ANT with "Henry." But the supporting players (among them Patti LuPone, Tony Azito, Steven Gilborn, Jossie de Guzman and Robert Jason) come at the Bard with such a variety of styles and accents as to make that desire a pipe dream. The show's motto could be "E Pluribus Multi."
Not only do the wildly disparate elements of this production fail to come together, it is hard to see how they are supposed to mesh. The dominant motif seems to be chess. The stage floor is covered with square slabs of rough stone, and Mayer certainly manipulates the royal characters with a ponder that suggests they are approaching checkmate. Elsewhere, there are distinct Brechtian touches: A cortege of travelers is represented by dummies on a cart and what could be Mother Courage's backup wagon is pressed into use. So are a pair of stuffed carrousel horses on wheels. LuPone gets to sing a plaintive folk refrain, tears streaming down her face, while Azito, a puppet on a string, performs a music hall jig.
Some of the fighting unfolds in slow motion; but the rest of it is your usual garden variety thumping and clanking. Meanwhile, the smoke of battle is produced by a censer-waving archbishop, trailed by a covey of nuns, who glide impassively through the carnage. Religion lending its complicity to the savagery of war, I guess. I'm not even sure what to make of Adrianne Lobel's scenery -- a blend of high tech and Gothic. Soaring verticality is its chief distinction, but the set pieces, constructed of bleached plywood, could have come from an unfinished-furniture outlet. The rationale behind Mayer's choices is far too tentatively expressed to keep the charge of hodgepodge at bay.
Peter Sellars, the director of ANT, insists that the company will need time to find its shape and inspiration and must be afforded the opportunity to fail. Philosophically, he is right. Theatrical birthings are long and arduous and a lot of growing pains lie ahead. But that doesn't make this 3 1/2-hour evening any easier to sit through. Henry IV, Part I, by William Shakespeare, directed by Timothy S. Mayer. Scenery, Adrianne Lobel; costumes, Dunya Ramicova and Philipp Jung; lighting, James F. Ingalls. With John McMartin, John Heard, Bruce McGill, Stephen Pearlman, Steven Gilborn, Tony Azito, Patti LuPone, Jossie de Guzman, Denny Dillon. At the Eisenhower Theater through April 20.