If you like your Shakespeare characters to behave and react like flesh and blood people, and not esoteric abstractions, Brave Spirits Theatre’s Henry the Fourth, Part 1 is a play you’ll love. Director Charlene V. Smith’s incarnation of this play features Joshua Williams as the angry, impetuous Harry “Hotspur” Percy; Brendan Edward Kennedy as the youthful, yet wise Prince Henry aka Prince Hal; and the always magnificent Ian Blackwell Rogers as the pivotal character of Sir John Falstaff. The cast brings subtext and body language to Shakespeare’s text so that it speaks to the audience in a personal way. This version of Henry the Fourth, Part 1 is a gift for theater and history lovers alike.
Taking place in the 14th century, Henry the Fourth, Part 1 features the would-be Henry V, aka Prince Hal, aka the Prince of Wales as he avoids his responsibilities by hanging out with the personable drunkard Falstaff, and as he fights in a power struggle with royal-rebel Harry “Hotspur” Percy. Prince Hal lives in the shadow of his father, England’s King Henry IV, for much of this play.
The set and lighting create an archaic mood for Brave Spirits’ Henry the Fourth, Part 1, which is staged in the round. From the impressive, upstage throne and coats of arms, to the jumble of approximately three-by-three, centerstage, wooden flats, to lighting that evokes both time of day and emotional tone, Megan Holden’s set and Jason Aufdem-Brinke’s lighting are superb.
Not as effective is Kristen P. Ahern’s costume design, which is at times anachronistic and thematically erratic. Some of the characters wear militaristic tunics, complete with red or blue sashes (some with sneakers), while others wear 21st-century yuppie-wear (e.g. dress shirt and chinos), while others wear dresses that range in time period from late last century to now. I prefer a consistent theme that evokes a congruent time period.
Also troubling is Falstaff’s lack of girth. The character has always been depicted as rather portly (Act 3, Scene 3: “Thou seest I have more flesh than another man…”). Aside from minimal stuffing under Rogers’ shirt, there is not much to indicate Falstaff’s size.
There are a few musical interludes in the show, many of which feature an ominous drumbeat. Composer/Music Director Jordan Friend, the founding artistic director of 4615 Theatre Company, and Music Captain Zach Brewster-Geisz help create music that punctuates the play with a martial mood.
The most powerful scenes are the ones between Kennedy, who appeared in Brave Spirits’ As You Like It, and Rogers, as Prince Hal and Falstaff respectively, as they happily trade insults at Mistress Quickly’s tavern and plan robberies of religious pilgrims. Their puns and putdowns are entertaining, and Rogers, who appeared as the Duke, Antonio, and Launce in Brave Spirits’ Two Gentlemen of Verona, depicts Falstaff as every bit of the drunken, cowardly, yet lovable character he is. Kennedy plays Prince Hal as a young man who loves the carefree life of the tavern but is wise enough to take up the mantle of responsibility if required.
Williams’ Hotspur, a rebel against Henry IV, is a highlight of this show. He brings a rebellious angst to all of his scenes. As he tells his minions in Act 5, Scene 2: “Arm, arm with speed!”
Act 5, Scene 1 is compelling because of John Stange as King Henry IV, in a scene with Kennedy’s Prince Hal. Stange also excels in his story-setting Act I, Scene 1 monologue. “The edge of war, like an ill-sheathed knife, no more shall cut his master…Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross we are impressed and engaged to fight.”
Brewster-Geisz, an instructor at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, is wonderful as Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York. I also liked him as the tavern-dweller Bardolph. His expressions tell as much as his spoken lines in his scenes.
Lisa Hill-Corley puts on an acting clinic in her roles as Mistress Quickly and the Countess of Worcester. Hill-Corley is a Brave Spirits veteran, having appeared in The Trojan Women, Doctor Faustus, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and A King and No King. She elevates her scenes in a way that makes them compelling and memorable.
Molly E. Thomas impresses in two important roles: Countess of Douglas and Lady Mortimer. Dean Carlson is regal as Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and martial as Sir Walter Blunt. Brianna Goode, founder of Artists by Volume theater company, and Nicole Ruthmarie made the most of their roles, Peto and Frances, respectively.
The Countess of Westmoreland is well played by Jillian Riti. Prince John of Lancaster is done a good service by Bannigan. The characters Owen Glendower and Sir Richard Vernon are portrayed convincingly by Tom Howley.
Casey Kaleba’s fight choreography, as it was in last winter’s Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of this play, is frighteningly believable and consists of a series of one-on-one duels between key characters at the battle of Shrewsbury. The weapon clashes appear genuinely dangerous—strikes do not appear to be pulled.
Intimacy Coordinator Megan Behm makes the love scenes believable. Behm especially makes the scene between Riti’s Lady Kate Percy and Williams’ Hotspur work. Convincing work is evident from Hannah Fogler, Hair and Makeup Designer, and Properties Designer Caolan Eder.
Welsh is fluently spoken in this show, and Dan Stevens does an excellent job as Welsh Consultant. Jenna Berk’s dialect coaching ensures that the elocution is crisp and consistent.
Brave Spirits is playing Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry the Fifth now until April 19th, at which point Henry the Fourth, Part 2 and Henry the Fifth will end; the theater company calls those four plays “The King’s Shadow.” Next season, Brave Spirits is producing Henry the Sixth Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard the Third under the banner “The Queen’s Storm.” That is a prodigious feat, and Shakespeare-lovers should take advantage of this amazing display of stagecraft.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one 10-minute intermission.
Read David Siegel’s interview with Brave Spirits Artistic Director Charlene V. Smith here.