Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Play: That Falstaff Show

Henry IV, Part Two, by William Shakespeare, Directed by Lisa Peterson.

I have climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne. I say that because the reward for having climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne is that you never have to climb the tower of the cathedral in Cologne again. If someone says, "Hey, we're in Cologne, let's climb the tower of the cathedral!" You can just say, "I've already climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne. It is a wonderful view. Go have fun."

So, then. Henry IV, Part 2.

You'd have a hard time justifying the whole "Shakespeare is the finest writer in the English Language" based on this one. In many ways it feels like the middle book of the trilogy - you've already got the set-up in the first book and the resolution in the third, so the second is the middle child that has to struggle along, and doesn't really get to have any traction. And the Lord of London have pity on you if you missed Part 1.

OK,the Ashland performance does give you a "previously in Henry IV" (the LB's description of it) in dumbshow to help the slackers - Henry IV usurps the crown from Richard II, and carefully manipulates things in order to keep it. Meanwhile, his wastrel eldest son Hal spends a lot of time in cheap dives with his best bud, Sir John Falstaff, a knight of dubious reputation and comic reputation. At the end of Part 1, Young Hal (eventually Henry V), straightens up, flies right, and fights to defend his father's kingdom, killing young Hotspur, and saving the day.

Then we start part 2, and Hal has already backslid into hanging out and getting drunk, though not so much with Falstaff at this point. Henry IV has a new gaggle of aggressive enemy armies, which are thwarted not by Henry, nor by Hal, but by one of Henry's OTHER sons (who doesn't get much credit). In fact there seems to be an insufficient amount of King Henry in this part of King Henry - his gig is to bat away another attempt and then perish twice (once mistakenly, then once again for reals) and hand over the heavy burden of the crown to young Hal.

But even Hal is not the center of this play. The center, at least as far as getting groundlings through the gate, is John Falstaff, who drinks, whores, lies, rhapsodizes about all the above, and runs a recruiting scam in the counties far beyond the court when your more traditional history play would be talking about battles. Falstaff is the Fonzie of these plays - the breakout character that everyone loves, the lovable, larger than life cad. Perfect for a situation comedy. Indeed, Falstaff is so popular a character that he steals the play, and when, the fully-crowned Hal ... sorry, Henry V, decides to become a proper British monarch and banishes his old drinking buddy, you think that the new king is a bit of a rotter for turning on his old bud.

Henry IV, Part 2 feels like a line extension, an encore for Falstaff (blustered masterfully by Michael Winters). Hal (John Tufts) has to struggle with an inherent dislikability of his character in the play (which is interesting in that Henry V is considered one of England's great kings). And Richard Howard as Henry IV the Ever-Fading does the best with a title role that doesn't leave him much time on the stage. Oh yes, it was rendered well and Shakespearean and professional and all that, and you feel like you've been given your faithful dollop of history, but it really is Falstaff's world - the Kings just keep things tidy for him.

There's another part that's interesting - the play ends with a promise of a sequel - Henry V, featuring the return of even more Falstaff. When Henry V shows up, however, Falstaff does not. He dies offstage and his death is described by his fellow tavern-mates. Kate thinks it is because the role was connected to a particular actor, who was not available. I will go further and posit that the actor connected with Sir John Falstaff died between the plays (we're talking about a London at the time of the plagues, after all). Rather than recast a role that may have specifically been tailored to Jack's large frame, they just wrote him out. Regardless, that is one more component that leave HVP2 as a strange little bit of the cannon.

And how did it leave me? Well, I have climbed the tower of the cathedral in Cologne. And if anyone ever says "Hey, we're in Cologne, let's climb the tower of the cathedral!" I can just say, "No thanks, I've seen Henry V, Part 2."

More later,