Playwright: William Shakespeare
At: Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Phone: 312-595-5600; $95 ( both parts )
Runs through: June 18
By Jonathan Abarbanel
Somber music, a wintry wind and a gold crown bathed in blood signal the opening of Shakespeare's twin plays about kingship and manhood in which Prince Hal, 'the madcap Prince of Wales,' journeys from careless youth to warrior to politician, ever learning from the examples of others both high- and low-born. The somber opening quickly gives way to the vibrant scenes of drinking, wenching and near-lawless disorder that surround Sir John Falstaff and his friends—among them the prince—at the Boars Head Tavern.
Director Barbara Gaines offers excellence without innovation in a reading of the paired works that's strongly-acted, clear and traditional. In no way modernist, Henry IV, Parts I and II nonetheless speak to our times as the warriors and politicians of the royal court and their enemies are almost always aware that power has—must have—its constraints, even the power of kings, while Falstaff's mock court is unconstrained. Clearly the Lord of Misrule, Falstaff must fall if Prince Hal—the future Henry V—is to prove his worthiness as heir to power. Today, we dwell in a nation where a prudent and experienced Henry IV-type father has given rise to an unruly son who understands the uses of power but not its constraints and responsibilities. Our president is no Henry V.
The element that shows most strongly, compared to other productions, is the tough love between Prince Hal and his father. King Henry is the title role but not the showcase one, and often receives a bland reading. That's not the case here, with David Lively unleashing the tiger in the ailing and soul-searching old king as he twice dresses down Prince Hal with ferocious tongue-lashings. As Hal, Jeffrey Carlson's agonized pain is palpable as he meekly accepts his father's abuse—much of it justified, but not all. Sounding more English than the rest of the cast, Carlson belies his striking good looks by skillfully delineating Hal's likeable but devious nature. As Falstaff, the surrogate father, Greg Vinkler is a master of the role, having played it three times before. His wig and whiskers, and the size of his belly, differ each time but the essence of humanity he pours into the cagey but self-deceiving rogue, relishing life with slightly cynical charm, remains the same.
The physical production is handsome but not lavish, clearly designed to tour. ( It travels in July to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, England. ) The central visual focus is on people, not places, with Virgil C. Johnson's costumes and Melissa Veal's hairpieces and makeup being foremost. Employing a great deal of sexy brown and black leather as well as helmet-like black wigs, most of the company falls somewhere between classical and Klingon, in studied contrast to Hal's blondness. Physically an outsider, Hal must discover where he fits in.