Sad certainties of life: Flowers wither, summer eventually spirals into fall and winter, and Hotspur — the impetuous rebel whose rash outbursts make up some of the most diverting moments in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1” — does not appear in “Part 2.”
But rest assured, there are some wonderfully entertaining personalities in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s “Henry IV, Part 2,” which is directed by Michael Kahn and is running in repertory with “Henry IV, Part 1.” No, I’m not talking about Sir John Falstaff, the boastful, hard-drinking rogue who is portrayed by Stacy Keach in both plays — which essentially constitute two halves of a sturdy and engrossing, if not revelatory, production. I’m talking about the two country justices of “Part 2,” Shallow (Ted van Griethuysen) and Silence (Bev Appleton) — elderly, easily intoxicated gentlemen who briefly carouse and reminisce with Falstaff as that braggart waits for his old friend Prince Hal (Matthew Amendt) to inherit the crown.
Shallow and Silence’s names have never given rise to adjectives, in the way that Falstaff has engendered the word “Falstaffian.” And yet, when van Griethuysen’s Shallow and Appleton’s frail, quavery-voiced Silence totter into view in their black robes and proceed to peer at and shuffle some scraps of paper relating to the administration of Shallow’s estate (Silence’s long cap keeps flopping into his eyes), the spectacle is so hilarious and endearing that you may wish you could spend a few more hours with these wheezy, nostalgic gents.
“Henry IV” being the variegated epic that it is, such comedy sits alongside evocations of military conflict, scenes of political and personal betrayal and redemption, and poetic reflections on the burdens of being a ruler. The crown sits heavily on the head of King Henry IV (Edward Gero), who has won the throne by helping to overthrow England’s previous monarch (voiceovers borrowed from “Richard II” emphasize, a tad bluntly, the unease the king feels at the memory).
King Henry’s mood has not been helped by the giddiness of his heir, Hal, who has frittered away his youth on sprees with Falstaff and other devil-may-care types, such as the blustering Pistol (Steve Pickering). Add the ongoing military insurrection spearheaded by malcontents such as the archbishop of York (also played by the fine Pickering, in intense and sober vein), and it’s no wonder that the king has developed a bad case of insomnia.
Kahn’s production sweeps us bracingly into this turbulent scenario, thanks to a particularly audacious and funny interpretation of Rumor, the symbolic personage who opens “Part 2” with a monologue. (It would be a shame to spoil the surprise here.) Subsequent scenes reacquaint us with several characters from “Part 1” whose personalities register differently in “Part 2” — a play that, as has often been noted, displays a more elegiac quality than its prequel. (Leafless tree branches and brown stalks and leaves, arranged here and there around Alexander Dodge’s wooden-palisade set, acknowledge this strain of somberness.)
Gero’s King Henry, who mostly glowered through “Part 1,” reveals more convincing depths of frustration and pent-up anxiety in his speeches here — particularly the bitter, panicked outburst he directs at Prince Hal shortly before dying. Amendt’s Hal, who ranged so wonderfully through a spectrum of moods in “Part 1,” is perhaps unavoidably less interesting in this play, which delivers a portrait of a more responsible royal heir. But a scene in which Hal confronts an erstwhile nemesis, the Lord Chief Justice (an imposing Derrick Lee Weeden), packs a welcome emotional punch.
As Falstaff, Keach continues to work with a restricted palette, often delivering lines with similar cadences and not shading too many undertones into his depiction of a breezily smug, self-interested, aging rascal. Perhaps reflecting an effort to avoid a too-obvious reading of the character and play, Falstaff comes across as rather sunnier in “Part 2” than he did in “Part 1,” and even the knight’s famous remark about hearing “the chimes at midnight” doesn’t convey the poignancy one might expect.
Fortunately, we have Shallow and Silence to deliver richness of humor and tone. Other notable performances include Patrick Vaill’s stern Prince John of Lancaster (Hal’s more businesslike brother), Craig Wallace’s dignified Earl of Westmorland and, showing how much flavorful comedy can be wrung from a small role, Brad Bellamy’s doddering Bardolph. Kate Skinner and Maggie Kettering are lively as, respectively, the tavern hostess Mistress Quickly and the prostitute Doll Tearsheet.
The production’s final image draws the “Henry IV” saga to a suitably resonant close. On one side of a tableau, the reformed Prince Hal — newly crowned Henry V — is dressed in white, which symbolizes a new beginning. But you can tell this fledgling monarch already knows the truth his father enunciated during a sleepless night: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn; lighting design, Stephen Strawbridge; costumes, Ann Hould-Ward; composer/music director, Michael Roth; wig design, Paul Huntley; fight directors, Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet; voice and text coach, Ellen O’Brien; assistant director, Gus Heagerty. With Kevin McGuire, Julia Brandeberry, Kelley Curran, Chris Genebach, Joel David Santner, Aaron Gaines, Rhett Henckel, Jude Sandy, Matthew McGee, Max Jackson and others. About 2 hours and 40 minutes. $20 to $115. Running in repertory with “Henry IV, Part 1” through June 8 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.