Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Oh Henry

I find myself in a weird position regarding “Henry IV, Part 2.” In a way, I found fault with it for being too good in parts, something that seems inconsistent. Let me explain:

As I said in my review, I really enjoyed the prelude to the show. The dancing / tumbling / chanting rhythmic work of some of the show’s hottest actors – I already mentioned all of dreamy boys previously so let me just add that Suzanne Ankrum is every bit as dark, dashing and beautiful as her male compatriots – was highly entertaining, energizing, amusing, and overall just a great way to warm the crowd up in anticipation of the opening curtain.

In contrast to that bracing beginning, what comes after seems largely like rehash of the superior “Part 1.” There are some countrymen unhappy with Henry Bollingbrook but unlike the rebels of Part 1, the scattered opposition in Part 2 never coalesces into a true threat and eventually disbands, allowing the leaders to be easily captured by the king’s lieutenants. Part of the shame of this is that Brandon Crowder makes a dynamic Archbishop of York. If Shakespeare was still writing today, I’d petition him for a prequel about York just so Crowder could star in it.

Christopher Dunn is fine as Northumberland but I didn’t sense any great sorrow from him at hearing of the death of his son, and ultimately, his character is convinced to flee to Scotland. I can’t find fault with the pleadings of his wife and daughter-in-law but still, dramatically, the ultimate result makes the whole subplot kind of unnecessary, in my opinion. (Any Bard scholars who want to argue for its absolute necessity, have at it; I’m all ears.)

As far as Prince Hal and Falstaff go, neither seems to have been affected greatly by the events of “Part 1.” Hal is still a partier and womanizer and Falstaff is still an oaf and a scamp. Reading the text closely would reveal some small changes in degree for both characters but, as far as what comes across on stage, not much seemed different to me. As should be clear by now, most of my complaints are about the play itself. According to the small bit of research I did on the play, it is not nearly as frequently produced as “Part 1” or “Henry V” and my assumption would be that is because of these structural deficiencies. (Thanks, Andrew, for your bit of history on the play. I hadn’t read your comment until after I wrote this post.)

Another weird aspect of the play is that the misadventures of Falstaff and his gallery of commoners takes up so much time and energy in the play but not only is this action much more tangential to the main plotline than “Part 1” but, in the end, Falstaff and crew are brushed aside by Hal as he moves on to bigger and better things. I understand that the new King putting his boyish ways behind him is part of the point, but was it really necessary to spend so much time with these vagabonds if that’s where we were going to end up?

This all might be forgivable if the scenes with Falstaff were laugh-out-loud hilarious but, in my opinion, they were not. Part of the reason is the material. I have to give Director (Master of Play) James Bond credit for trying to goose up these scenes with directorial bits of fun. Crowder playing Shallow as a leering homosexual has its charms. But Bond making Joseph Anthony Carlson play with himself for 10 minutes on stage while alternately sticking his toes up his nose – certainly downright ground-breaking in rude humor -- in this context just highlighted how little substance there was in these scenes, if you ask me. (For the record: while not exactly a Ferrelly Bros fan or anything, I certainly enjoy the rude humor; “The Aristocrats” is one of my favorite movies, for instance. Just saying.)

The other part of why these scenes didn’t work for me was the performance of Daryl Clark Phillips. I don’t want to pick on Mr. Phillips as he does a fine job in many ways – he can certainly play the scamp and truly seems like he could talk himself out of any situation. His pointed speech praising the benefits of “sack” was well-delivered and a strong aspect of the production.

But I’ve always thought Falstaff should be a bit of a rogue – a fading womanizer, someone who Prince Hal could have become if he didn’t have the money and the connections. It is the devilish rogue that Mistress Quickly and Doll Highstreet still love even when Falstaff cheats them and insults them. I didn’t get a sense of the rogue in Phillip’s performance. Also, there was a cadence-of-speech thing in Phillips’s performance that distracted me, times when he hesitated over lines or interrupted the internal rhythms. I don’t know if he was directed to deliver them that way or if it was an acting choice or if he was still having trouble remembering all of his lines at the first preview performance I saw. But the effect on me was that I lost patience with Falstaff fairly quickly.

I should say that there were several folks who seemed to enjoy the highjinks in these scenes. But, as Randy on “American Idol” would say, they were just a’ight for me. However, when Henry IV shows up back on stage midway through the second act, I was very quickly wrapped up in the action again. To be honest, I was disappointed when I heard that Jack Parrish was not going to play Henry IV, having given such a ferocious performance last summer. But my disappointment was dispelled immediately when Bridgewater started digging into the role. And when Henry starts to falter late in the second act, Bridgewater’s acting is truly exquisite. I really could have watched a whole night of Phillip James Brown’s Prince Hal and Bridgewater’s Henry going at it. Add in the whole court of Henry’s sons – played by Crowder, Carson, and Jeff Cole – and you’ve got a killer play with just those five actors.

So the hard thing was that these last scenes, particularly the tete-a-tete between King and Prince, outshone everything that came before it so completely that the moderately entertaining scenes in the middle seemed downright mediocre in retrospect. One thing the production did for certain though, was whet my appetite for Henry V. With the focus so solidly on Brown as the new king – and perhaps with Bond directing again? – I expect spectacular things next summer.

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