The bloody clash of Prince Hal and Hotspur in “Henry IV, Part 1” is usually the hold-your-breath dramatic apex of Shakespeare’s story of the rise of dissolute-turned-resolute Henry V. On the stage of Folger Theatre, though, the combatants hardly seem more committed to a fight to the finish than college roommates engaged in alcohol-fueled arm wrestling.
It’s not the lack of physical engagement that drags down the scene; so much energy is expended in the sword fight of Avery Whitted’s Hal and Tyler Fauntleroy’s Hotspur that an actor’s chest heaves uncontrollably for minutes after his “death.” What’s missing is a palpable grit, particularly in Whitted’s performance, that would help us to a belief in Hal’s head-spinning pivot from idler and carouser to beloved hero of the realm.
The sense of squandered opportunity suffuses director Rosa Joshi’s debut production for Folger, and it’s a shame, because the talents of that premier Shakespearean, Edward Gero, are stranded on a middling evening. His Falstaff, a Rabelaisian mountain of self-regard and corruption, should be anchored in a potent tale of casting aside foolishness in favor of duty. Do we credit for a moment this impassive Hal taking pleasure in his escapades with Gero’s transgressive Sir John? Or that Hal grasps in his doleful reply in the tavern scene — “I do, I will” — that he is to be the architect of Falstaff’s downfall?
The production, with its desperate rummaging for a look — the costumes by Kathleen Geldard often appear to be modeled on a catalogue for Barbour coats — is rooted in no discernible reality, an iffy proposition for one of the history plays. Scottish and Welsh characters speak in regional accents, while everyone else communicates in flat American, and the Cheapside scenes in which drunken Falstaff holds court are set in a “Moulin Rouge”-inspired disco — not a wholly bad idea, just never imaginatively developed. Novel, at least, is choreographer Alice Gosti’s attempt to relieve the tedium of standard-issue Shakespeare battle scenes by reimagining them as cardio kickboxing exercises.
Peter Crook’s titular King Henry IV, meanwhile, seems so churlishly aloof that you can’t find any compelling emotional rationale for Hal’s contrite return. Henry invited deep animus in his kingdom with his usurpation of the throne of erratic Richard II; “Henry IV, Part 1” is an account of the poisonous fallout from a royal seizure that some in the nobility viewed as illegal. The divisiveness of his tenure certainly gives the play a contemporary ring. But aside from Gero’s aptly debauched Falstaff — whose delivery of the nihilistic “What is Honor?” speech is the production’s most effective moment — only Fauntleroy’s Hotspur feels like a character who leaps from the page.
The part is made for an actor of bravura inclinations; Shakespeare piled on the pressure for Hal when he created this adversary of pure passion. Fauntleroy radiates the requisite fire even if the character’s prideful stature isn’t thoroughly embodied. Rebellious Hotspur is, after all, the essence of the honor that Falstaff dismisses as mere “air.”
Still, it’s a problem for a “Henry IV” production when the guy who stands in the way of the ostensible hero is the one you wish were left standing.
Henry IV, Part 1, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Rosa Joshi. Sets, Sarah Ryung Clement; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; music and sound, Palmer Hefferan; movement, Alice Gosti. With Todd Scofield, Naomi Jacobson, Kate Eastwood Norris, Alex Michell, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh and U. Jonathan Toppo. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Oct. 13 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu/theatre.