shakespeareances.comCaricature of Shakespeare



Henry IV, Part One and Part Two

The Truth Is the Truth, and Much More

Smith Street Stage, Carroll Park, Brooklyn, New York
Sunday, July 12, 2015, third row right side in park's courtyard
Directed by Joby Earle

Falstaff, with protruding belly, sits on a crate and holds a tankard in his left hand, his right hand held out as if in regal posture with his mouth puckered in great pronouncement: he has a pillow on his head, and he's wearing his normal outfit of buckskin vest over yellow shirt, blue pants, and bright redk, knee-high boots. A banner of three royal lions hang on a brick wall in the background.
Falstaff (Jonathan Hopkins) holds court play-acting as the king in the tavern scene of Smith Street Stage's production of Henry IV, Part One, at Carroll Park in Brooklyn. Below, Prince Hal (Hannah Sloat) watches the dying Hotspur (Michael Hanson) as Falstaff counterfeits death. Photos by Chris Montgomery, Smith Street Stage.

It's Act II, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. We've just seen the multiple troubles hounding King Henry's court: a failed war on the border with Wales, portents of civil strife up north, and a disappointing son at home, all forcing Henry to cancel his planned trip to the Holy Land. Now we move to Eastcheap where Falstaff is sleeping on a tavern table at the front of the stage, and Prince Hal (Henry's disappointing son) is asleep on a ledge at the back wall. Suddenly, Hal starts from his sleep screaming, bringing Falstaff to roaring wakefulness. Obviously, Hal was having a bad dream, but he immediately starts wittily jostling with the fat, old Falstaff in mutual bonhomie.

Later, though, Hal will tell us how "I have long dream'd of such a kind of man, so surfeit-swell'd, so old and so profane; but, being awaked, I do despise my dream." How much later he says that is the key: in the last scene of William Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part Two when, as the newly crowned King Henry V, he has just banished Falstaff. Draw what conclusions you will from this allegorical image at the end of Shakespeare's two-part play with the visual image at the beginning of Director Joby Earle's two-part production, but it is one of many pleasant discoveries in Smith Street Stage's intelligent repertory presentation of these two plays, pairing them in tandem on weekend evenings.

Brooklyn-based Smith Street Stage uses for its theater Carroll Park, an urban green space with gardens, basketball courts, playgrounds, a compass rose sprinkler area, a bronze and granite World War I statue, and a park building with restrooms and maintenance shed that serves as the theater's backdrop and tiring-house. A makeshift amphitheater of a few dozen chairs is set up on the courtyard fronting the park building and flanked by modern jungle gyms on either side. Audiences fill the chairs or set up lawn chairs and spread out blankets on the brick surface, many staking out their places long before the plays start. A set of crates, singly or in various configurations, serve as tables, chairs, and thrones (Alicia Dawn Bullen did the set design and props), and Costume Designer Adrienne Carlile outfits the actors in a colorful blend of medievalish formal robes for the king and earls, and vests with casual pants and knee-high boots for the prince and his peers (both noble and not-so-noble).

The actors have to vie with such aural distractions as car horns, helicopters, motorcycles, kids in the playgrounds, a woman talking on her cell phone, and a trash truck clang-banging through its route. Worst of all is an ice cream truck's ding-ding-da-dinging over the course of three scenes: It becomes as grating as Hotspur's popinjay lord. Actors require a serious set of thespian pipes to deliver Shakespeare's subtle verse and verbal humor in this setting, and unfortunately not all in the cast are equipped to meet that challenge—unfortunate because this company has a lot to say in these two plays, despite getting each part down to 90 minutes.

That requires a lot of trimming, some regrettable, but by pairing the plays Earle employs much rearranging, including moving scenes from Part One into Part Two. Dispensing with Falstaff's page in Part Two, Earle assigns the boy's lines to Bardolph (Beth Ann Hopkins, the company's artistic director), so his jesting with Falstaff about being "out of all reasonable compass" has moved from Part One to the start of Part Two before Falstaff (Jonathan Hopkins) gets the doctor's report on his water. In Part One, Falstaff in Coventry on his way to the battle of Shrewsbury soliloquizes how he has "misused the king's press damnably" by drafting "good house-holders, yeoman's sons," and "contracted bachelors," accepting their bribes to get out of service and then filling his ranks with "tattered prodigals." In Part Two, we see Falstaff preside over a draft in Gloucestershire on his way to the battle at Gaultree Forest, carrying out what he describes in Part One. Earle thus takes the soliloquy in Coventry and inserts it at the end of this Gloucestershire scene. Falstaff's original soliloquy at the end of the first Gloucestershire scene—on how old men lie—becomes a prelude to the second Gloucestershire scene. Normally, I decry such scene-shifting as directorial whims that upset Shakespeare's finely crafted narrative, but in this instance, the shuffling is not only harmless but also serves the narration and is done out of respect for the text, not in spite of it.

It is such regard for Shakespeare's characters and their stories, as well as the plays' overall mood and themes, that manifests in many poignant moments in both plays. Some seem slight but are indelible, such as, in Part One, Beth Ann Hopkins as Douglas, sitting on the ground and whetting her axe while bearing a manic gleam in her eyes and hissing her lines about courage and honor. Other moments seem slight but carry incredible weight, such as, in Part Two, Silence (Jonathan Minton, my son), who has been partying hard with the rest of the drunk crowd in Justice Shallow's Gloucestershire orchard, turning introspectively silent upon hearing that "the old king is dead." Much of his and Shallow's earlier conversation has to do with passing time and old friends dying, and this news about Henry IV's passing—which causes Falstaff and his cronies to erupt in celebration—is just another big step toward fading mortality for Silence.

This production also delves deeply into interrelationship dynamics beyond the centerpiece figures of Henry, Hal, and Falstaff. One particularly arresting relationship is that between King Henry (Jane May) and Worcester (Minton). Worcester, along with his brother Northumberland and nephew Hotspur, had helped Henry depose Richard II. The falling out between Henry and Worcester may have been the inevitable course of politics as the earls want more by way of thanks and the king grows wary of the earls' ability and willingness to depose a king. By the start of Henry IV, Part One, though, May's Henry and Minton's Worcester behave like a married couple that have degenerated into hatred during the course of a bitter divorce, a loathing driven by a mutual sense of betrayal rubbing raw heartstrings still strained by love's swelling. The civility in each of their scenes together lasts no more than a couple of lines before they are at each other's verbal throats. After the battle of Shrewsbury, May's Henry chides the captured Worcester with haughty emotional superiority, and Minton laces Worcester's response—"What I have done my safety urged me to; And I embrace this fortune patiently, since not to be avoided it falls on me"—with F-you disdain. Henry gets the last word, ordering Worcester to execution, but Worcester gets in the last shot, a good-riddance smirk.

Notably, Hotspur (Michael Hanson) seems to look to his Uncle Worcester as more of a father figure than Northumberland (Sam Reiff-Pasarew), his real father. So unlike his ambitiously aggressive version in Richard II, the first play in this history cycle, Northumberland turns out to be the ultimate wuss in these Henry plays, and if you've ever wondered how he could breed a Hotspur you need look no further in this production than to Minton's Worcester. Hanson's Hotspur not only looks on his uncle more admiringly than he does his father, he mirrors Worcester in bearing and expression—until his hyperactive passions get the better of him.

Hotspur is one of my favorite characters in the Shakespeare canon, and Hanson is tops among Hotspurs I've seen. We can see his Worcester-learned stoicism start to vibrate before turning to outright agitation and then exploding into rants. With Hotspur's great popinjay speech, Hanson plays to the audience as much as he does to the king and court, verbally describing the irksome lord's behavior in vivid detail while physically displaying in vivid detail his irritation, including mimicking the lord taking in snuff. Hanson unabashedly plays Hotspur as a comic character, especially in the letter-reading scene, but his acting elevates to something special when his wife, Lady Percy (Beth Ann Hopkins), enters to complain of Hotspur's absence from her bed. Nowadays, every time I hear this speech, I think of actor and Army veteran Stephan Wolfert who, in his one-actor play Cry "Havoc!" used Lady Percy's speech as an accurate description of post-traumatic stress disorder. Here, as I'm hearing Lady Percy's speech in this way, I'm watching Hanson's Hotspur turn troubled in his expression, understanding deeper meaning in his wife's words and knowing full well how overexposure to combat feeds demons as much as it fuels adrenalin. His abusive reaction to Lady Percy prompted a little girl sitting behind us to ask her mother, "Why is he saying that?" The little girl's reaction points to the truth in Hanson's portrayal: Hotspur may be a comic character, but PTSD can cause even such persons to turn tyrannical on the instance. And in another instance, he's a cuddling puppy in her arms, giving in to her loving overtures, pointing to another character trait of this Hotspur: he's easily seduced, whether for love or honor.

One of the scenes this production cuts from Part One is the Welsh council episode with Hotspur going up against Owen Glendower. It's an excision that always perturbs me but here I consider it criminal as we don't get to see Hanson work that scene. However, we get another dose of his talents in Part Two when he comes back to play a manic Pistol who's as dangerous as a doped-up grizzly bear sans teeth and claws.

Hotspur is the topic of conversation in the play's first scene as King Henry talks of Harry Percy's exploits in the Scottish wars and lists the number and degree of prisoners he's taken. "Is not this an honorable spoil? A gallant prize? Ha, cousin, is it not?" the king asks Westmoreland (Lauren Pennline), who replies, "In faith, it is a conquest for a prince to boast of," and immediately Westmoreland and the other lords switch to expressions that explicitly say, "oh, crap." They know what's coming from the king, another diatribe about his worthless son, Harry Monmouth.

If there's one person May's King Henry hates as much as Worcester, it's his own son, Prince Hal, played by Hannah Sloat. Henry has good reason to feel that way. Sloat's Hal is a cocky playboy, mean in his pranks and insensitive in the tenor of his insults. He's drunk at the start of the centerpiece Eastcheap Tavern scene, and he maintains a smug attitude in his interview with his father where, at best, they achieve an uneasy truce to the end of Part One (the episode of Hal saving Henry at Shrewsbury is cut). Sloat delivers Hal's "I know you" soliloquy as an idea she's just hit upon, a potential strategy to wonder over but not necessarily embrace: she just doesn't have a sense of dedication about anything except having fun.

Hotspur kneeling on the ground, hands clutching his side, wearing red vest over white puffy shirt and tan pants, Hal standing off to the right, sword in her left hand, wearing buckskin vest over white puffy shirt, black jeans and gray knee-high boots, Falstaff lying in the background (red boots), sword next to him, all on a brick surface, and in the background the Carroll Park utility building, brick with black doors and windows.That changes with her experience at Shrewsbury, not just in her defeating Hotspur (in an exciting fight choreographed by Michael Rossmy) but in Falstaff's taking credit for killing Hotspur. Hal says he will go along with Falstaff's lie, but their relationship has inexorably changed because Hal now tastes the sour side of wastrel behavior himself. His character arc in Part Two sees him slowly waking from the fog of his wayward youth; but dad isn't fully aware of that. In yet another of this production's powerful moments, May gives a soul-wrenching performance of Henry on his deathbed, scolding Hal; her Henry is the father who, on the point of death, unleashes a lifetime of disappointment in his son and an infinity of fear for what his heir will do to England. "For now a time is come to mock at form: Harry the Fifth is crown'd: up, vanity! Down, royal state!" May's Henry wails, kneeling in mock reverence before Hal.

And yet, when Hal mistakenly thinks his father has expired, before he takes up the crown, he crosses himself. I've seen this play seven times before, and never have I seen a Hal do this gesture that is so commonplace in Shakespeare's histories when characters become aware of someone's death. It is this Hal that has to fight back against his father's lingering impressions of the former Hal and assure him of the future Hal's dedication. It's an extremely short journey from where this scene began, but the loving bond finally secured between King Henry and Prince Hal by the end of the scene is fully forged.

May, by the way, is also a delightful Mistress Quickly, and the Tavern scenes are such good times we can understand why Hal would be loathe to leave them behind. Earle uses the entire 13-member cast to populate the tavern beyond the speaking roles, so we see a variety of patrons, all singularly portrayed. It's one of those scenes you have to watch several times to take in everything.

At the center of it all is Jonathan Hopkins's Falstaff. His face not only resembles Jon Stewart, formerly of Comedy Central's Daily Show, but he delivers many of his speeches with Stewart-like cynical truth. His soliloquies and speeches come across as a comic's standup routine, but they are hugely entertaining via Hopkins's expert understanding of Shakespeare's lines. In the playacting scene, Hopkins's Falstaff grossly overacts his parts as first the king and then as Prince Hal. Still, the climactic moment of Hal's "I do, I will" on the point of some day banishing Falstaff carries emotional heft. Hal may only be displaying more snark in his response, but Falstaff no doubt knows there's a deeper truth to Hal's reply, that they could be torn asunder by powerful forces—political and beyond—at any moment. Falstaff won't let go of their play, insisting that "I have much to say in the behalf of that Falstaff" even with the news that the Chief Justice (Minton) has arrived at the inn to arrest Falstaff.

Deeper truths: Henry IV, Part One, and Part Two are full of them, and Smith Street Stage not only unearths many of them, its members plumb the depths of those truths to the fullest.

Eric Minton
August 11, 2015

Comment: e-mail

Start a discussion in the Bardroom