‘Henry IV, Parts I and II’ were stellar at American Shakespeare Center

The Actor’s Renaissance Season soared to great heights and mirrored the anger, fear, and taste for recklessness that so many of us feel at this moment.

The Shakespeare scene in and near Washington, DC, in the months prior to the virus’s intervention, was truly rich in character and ideas; so much so that even a certain fat braggart managed to strut and fret on several stages, almost simultaneously. (How on earth he managed this, lugging all that sack in his guts, is anyone’s guess.)

But history has also been in the air, keenly felt—and this spring, the American Shakespeare Center did its part to remind us that history and passion have always been two sides of the same coin; our times, like Shakespeare’s, are to be lived with conviction, and richly so. With its recently concluded online run of Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II, the ASC’s Actor’s Renaissance Season soared to great heights and mirrored the anger, the fear, even the taste for recklessness that so many of us feel at this moment. Confined to Vimeo because of the pandemic, it was an experience all the rarer for being webcast into our homes.

The cast of ‘Henry IV, Part 2,’ 2020. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

The conceit behind the Actor’s Renaissance Season has always been to work in the manner of Shakespeare’s original repertory company: assemble a team of veteran actors, pass out the scripts for a bunch of plays, and without any directorial or design interventions create the worlds of those plays—all in less than a fortnight. Impossible for mere mortals, but the American Shakespeare Center showed us once again how it’s done, and did it well.

What follows is a two-part review, an attempt to commemorate some truly wonderful, powerful, hard work.

Henry IV, Part I

One of the thrills of seeing a show at Blackfriars is the music—every actor turns singer-cum-multi-instrumentalist, and they take turns performing songs that preview the spirit of the action to follow. The festivities for Henry IV, Part I began with John Harrell (this repertory’s Falstaff) indulging in some retro Blue Oyster Cult—a tune far more familiar to those of Falstaff’s age, to be honest.

Then the show’s theme of impetuous youth was personified brilliantly through Prince Hal—the charismatic Brandon Carter—giving his own rendition of Daft Punk’s party anthem “Get Lucky,” and concluding with an absolutely electrifying rapper’s duel, with Carter’s rendition of Montell Jordan’s “My Mommy” set off against the hard edge of KP Powell (Henry Percy, natch) and his take on Kendrick Lamar’s “I Got Loyalty.” If there is any justice, this face-off should become a YouTube sensation, not least because it so perfectly encapsulated the spirit of honor and blood rivalry that would mark Part I’s conclusion.

As Henry IV, David Anthony Lewis began the two-part cycle in a seething boil, his every word an arrow shot straight to the heart, dangerous to cross indeed. As Prince Hal, Carter meanwhile balanced the mischievous with the determination of a young man who combines a love of pranks with a knowledge that he will someday have much to atone for, in his father’s eyes.

Meanwhile, the rebel camp seethed with resentment and dire schemes; KP Powell’s turn as the younger Henry Percy (Hotspur), scorched everything and everyone in its path. Given Powell’s astonishing level of controlled, malevolent fury, it’s a wonder the Blackfriars wasn’t reduced to ashes in his wake. Ronald Román-Meléndez holds his own as Henry Percy Sr.—the Duke of Northumberland—and Chris Johnston’s turn as the Earl of Worcester is likewise a study in passionate treachery.

The tavern scene is lit up by the witty, bawdy, no-nonsense Sylvie Davidson as Mistress Quickly, and Jessika D. Williams—whose turn as Benedick in this repertory’s Much Ado About Nothing was so sensational—lights a fire or two as Poins, Hal’s favorite co-conspirator.

John Harrell. Photo by Lauren Parker.

As for the fat guy—you know who—it’s been fascinating to see how he’s fared these days, and exactly what might qualify as “ancient of days” in a younger cast’s eyes. At the Folger’s production of Henry IV last fall we saw the always brilliant Ed Gero made rotund in semi-period dress, while January saw Brian Mani (in Aaron Posner’s updated Merry Wives of Windsor) embody the relic of an aging ’60s hippie. By March, Brave Spirits in Alexandria had Ian Blackwell Rogers’s mildly pudgy lounge lizard, motley, in a silk smoking jacket; which leads us to ASC’s latest model, John Harrell.

In Harrell, we first find a Falstaff comfortably numbed, sleeping off another bender under a tavern counter (which, in typical ASC staging economy, had just a moment before served as a well-set table in King Henry’s castle). The aesthetic here is that of ’90s grunge, with this walking butt of sack roaming the stage in an impossibly stuffed Nirvana t-shirt, complete with its burned-out, anti-Ecstasy logo, and the requisite flannel plaid shirt tied about the waist. (No need to be shocked; Grunge is now every bit as aged and creaky as the ’60s crowd that Kurt Cobain & Co. once so brutally mocked; plus ça change…).

Faded bandana on top, greyed beard below, Harrell presents us a surprisingly calm ne’er-do-well. But what sets this Falstaff apart isn’t the drinking or braggadocio but his world-weariness. Harrell gives us an aging specimen who has seen too much; his rendition of the famous “Honor” soliloquy is as quiet as it is forceful, laying out in no uncertain terms why Falstaff refuses to put his life on the line for anyone (Prince Hal excepted, possibly). Immune to the patriotic appeals of “God, King and Country,” and dubious about the appeals to ego and self-esteem that drive younger men mad—Harry Percy in particular—this Falstaff reminds us just how pointless the pursuit of honor has been and always will be.

Benjamin Reed’s fight choreography does not disappoint, and Part I’s final confrontation between Prince Hal and Hotspur is satisfyingly long, complex, with the classic twists that make for a truly satisfying swordsman’s denouement.

Henry IV, Part II

Kicking off the sequel’s pre-show is Mistress Quickly/Sylvie Davidson’s spirited “Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man, and the music rounds out with Brandon Carter, our Prince Hal, with a vivid rendering of Macklemore’s “Glorious,” with its poignant lines “We’re planting a flag, they don’t understand/The world is up for grabs” giving us one of Shakespeare’s themes in a nutshell.

One of the advantages of staging both Parts I and II together is that you can refer back, directly, to what you have just seen. Sure enough, Part II begins here with a reenactment of the final battle between Hal and Hotspur—only to be rewound (literally) upon the entrance of Rumor, the whip-smart Jessika D. Williams, who plays on our knowledge of what we have just witnessed, claiming that Hotspur, not Hal, was the victor. (“Fake news” has ever been with us, it seems.) After the confusion of battle has cleared, and the Duke of Northumberland knows his son Hotspur is dead, he lights the fire of the rebellion’s next phase, and the action can truly begin.

As the revolt resumes, we get to see the ensemble play both sides of the ensuing conflict, with equal passion. Constance Swain, whose Lady Percy is given a showcase eulogizing her late husband, has an even more memorable moment as cocksure Prince John, the Duke of Lancaster, who together with the equally authoritative Zoe Speas as Westmoreland, cons the rebels into laying down their arms before their arrest. Speas also moves with ease through the role of Lord Bardolph (in Percy’s rebel camp), when not whooping it up and running the tavern lads ragged as the switchblade-whipping, hard-drinking, jag-crying Doll Tearsheet.

Williams also returns as Poins—who plots one last trick with Prince Hal at the expense of Falstaff—and, once turned rebel, burns with rage as the conspiring Archbishop of York. KP Powell, meanwhile, the embers still glowing from his Hotspur, transforms into a somewhat milder-mannered Hastings among the rebels, then tacks towards comedy as the long-bearded Justice Shallow, Falstaff’s old schoolmate, filled with anecdotes of The Fat One’s boyhood exploits.

As Henry IV’s health wanes, we get a glimpse of Shakespeare’s more sympathetic side; David Anthony Lewis, so daunting in Part I, now has a memorable moment as the vulnerable king facing his own mortality, with the famous “uneasy lies the head” speech. The theme of decline is nicely accented during the intermission with Chris Johnson’s rendition of Death Cab for Cutie’s “60 & Punk,” an elegy for rebels and rebellions past.

As for Falstaff, when he’s not filling pisspots or having his “water” checked for signs of disease (of which, of course there are plenty), Harrell continues in the same vein as before, bragging, lying like hell, and assuming—against all hints to the contrary—that he will cash out in a big way once Prince Hal takes the throne. His lengthy, pseudoscientific discourse on the virtues of drink bears comparison to the best of those golden-age radio ads of yore (“9 out of 10 doctors recommend Lucky Strikes…”).

Brandon Carter, Actors’ Renaissance 2020 company member. Photo by Lauren Parker.

The final encounter between Henry IV and Prince Hal is not without its poignancy and humor. Carter’s Prince Hal is now decked with a spectacular gash on his right cheek, put there by Hotspur (nota bene: the official portrait only shows Henry V’s left profile). But the mood of the moment, when he suspects (mistakenly) his father has died, shifts instantly when he tries the crown on for size, and finds it a comically poor fit. Lewis’s rage, when Henry IV awakes to find his crown gone, is epic and tinged with physical pain as well as panic at what Hal’s mistake might mean for his realm.

The meat of this two-play cycle, however, comes with Henry V’s rise and his long-awaited about-face; Benjamin Reed, whose Lord Chief Justice constantly harassed Prince Hal in his tavern days, shines brilliantly as an evenhanded enforcer of the law.  Brave enough to stand up to a King he once imprisoned, Reed’s Justice earns Henry V’s trust, a moment that naturally does not bode well for Falstaff, who has yet to meet his, um, reward…

In the face of Henry V’s forceful rejection, Harrell’s Falstaff shows an appropriate stoicism.  And not without reason—his royal friend has granted him a stable income, the only catch being that he and his pals all be exiled from London—by 10 miles, which in those days was a major schlep indeed. Exile would be a fate worse than death for any true pubcrawler, but the prospect of steady income softens the blow of Falstaff’s detention.

Another poignant moment closes out the cycle; for an epilogue, Williams returns as Rumor, and makes a final plea for the audience’s favor, in hopes that our reception of the cast’s efforts will meet with approval; but in a last trick of the tongue, she calls for a line—“Prithee” is the cue for a prompter to feed her what comes next.  And since the forgotten line concerns Falstaff, it is Harrell himself who fills in, adding an extra layer of humanity and humility as the cycle draws to a close.

Shakespeare’s company endured a season or two of plague, and this brilliant company in Staunton is already deep into the disappointment and uncertainty that comes with the current pandemic.  It is doubly sad not to have seen the Actor’s Renaissance Season live, and to know that the time for its online presence has also passed.  But the ensemble work here was stellar, and speaks to future engagements that will rock the house once more, “The Good Lord willing, and the creek don’t rise.”

Running Times: 2½ hours including one intermission, for each part.

NOTE: Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II—originally filmed at The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia—were performed in repertory with Much Ado About Nothing and A King and No King, which were recently available (thanks to an arrangement with Actor’s Equity) on Blkfrs TV—Blackfriars TV—on Vimeo.

Although their time has passed there are other delightful shows to watch, still available!  For information and tickets please visit American Shakespeare Center.

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Andrew Walker White
Andrew Walker White (seen here taking tea at the walls of Troy) is a longtime Washington area theatre artist, whose career began with gigs at the Source Theatre (company member under Bart Whiteman) and included shows with Theatre Le Neon (company member, under Didier Rousselet) and the Capital Fringe Festival. He received his Ph.D. in Theatre History and Performance Studies from the University of Maryland, College Park with a specialty in post-classical Greek theatre and ritual. His book, "Performing Orthodox Ritual in Byzantium" marks the first of a series with Cambridge University Press, on the strange history of the Greek performing arts between Antiquity and the Renaissance.


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