Henry IV Part One is my favorite Shakespeare play but a bitch to produce. For one thing, there is all that history, which Elizabethans would have known but with which modern audiences are much less familiar. Add to that all those fight scenes, and you have a lot to deal with besides the text and scene work. Orson Welles’ greatest movie, Chimes At Midnight, is a masterful retelling of Henry IV Parts One and Two plus a little of The Merry Wives of Windsor. His purpose was to focus on the story of Falstaff, Shakespeare’s greatest creation.
I have seen some six or eight productions of Henry IV Part One and been a part of two myself. I feel I know this play. The problem with the current production at A Noise Within is that the director also plays Falstaff. This isn’t a movie, where you can shoot a scene over and over until you get it right. For a director to take on dealing with all that history, as well as those fights (well choreographed by Kenneth R. Merckx, who also plays The Douglas), while also playing the lead, takes a lot of chutzpah. The result here is that the play often seems a collection of speeches tied together at a fairly swift pace. I am sure with time the actors will do what actors do and gradually fill the characters, talk instead of speechify, and play the scenes. For now, certain scenes just lie there waiting to be explored rather than just “acted.”
Geoff Elliot (the director and Falstaff) has some wonderful moments, carefully chosen places to shine. But his performance seems too calculated, punctuated by an “old man shuffle,” a sing-song voice, and a fat suit. He is not helped by the fact that there are two older actors in the cast, belying his age makeup. His is the same mistake that Kevin Klein made recently in New York. Neither of them is right temperamentally to play the role of Falstaff, at least at their respective ages (Klein is older). They are romantic, heroic, leading men, not really character actors, though it can be argued that every role is a character role. Elliot is a wonderful actor and his performance may grow, and far be it from me to say he shouldn’t have attempted it.
All this is not to say there aren’t some fine performances. I liked Jill Hill’s Mistress Quickly, Steve Weingartner’s Worcester, William Dennis Hunt’s Bardolph (a delight), and Robertson Dean’s Henry (though he may be too young to play it). Freddy Douglas is a terrific Prince Hal and I hope he gets to play Hal in the complete history cycle. He is British, and his speech contrasted with most of the rest of the cast – everything he said was understandable. I once wanted to see “bad“ English Shakespeare so I went to a pub to see this play. The cast would run from one end of the bar (the Court) to the other (the Tavern). Silly, yes, but every word was clear. I guess they have it in their genes.
Lastly, a special "bravo" to J. Todd Adams’ Hotspur. The role is flashy (Olivier chose to play it rather than Hal) and Adams gives it his all. I am used to seeing him play comedy, which he does extremely well. Who knew he could take his shirt off, show his ripped body, and tear into a dramatic character? I have known Todd since he was an apprentice at the Utah Shakespearean Festival, where he stole the show playing Simple in Merry Wives of Windsor. I love seeing his growth and strength as an actor.
Go see this production. Although there is nothing revolutionary here, it is quite respectable and will grow with time. Through May 18 at A Noise Within in Glendale.