The Arden Shakespeare Gild’s HENRY IV, PART 1 didn’t open under the best of circumstances. The company was obliged to use its rain location instead of its lovely outdoor venue. The Gild Hall, stuffy at the beginning of the evening, was oppressively hot by night’s end, and if the audience was feeling it, then the actors, cloaked in Barbara Henry and Cecila Vore’s striking costumes, must have really felt it. Nevertheless, in the true spirit of community theatre, the company valiantly rose to the occasion to put on a spirited and engaging show that will only improve when they get to do it outdoors.
HENRY IV, PART 1 falls into the category of Shakespeare’s history plays—in this case, the Bard juggles a few facts regarding England’s turbulent civil wars of the early 15th century and creates an epic meditation on the honor and folly of war, the nature of heroism vs. pragmatic survival, and the troubled interactions between fathers and sons. The yet-to-rise son in this play is Henry, Prince of Wales, better known as Hal, and the core of the play is his relationship with his two father figures. The first father is his real father, King Henry IV, set upon by adversaries without and sorely troubled within by Hal’s irresponsible consorting with thieves, wenches, and layabouts (Robert Tietze impressively conveys Henry IV’s complex and often contradictory emotions). The second father figure is perhaps the play’s most famous character, the riotous and rotund Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s crowning comic creations, full of bawdy puns, outrageous exaggerations, and some sharp and surprising cynicism regarding such intangibles as honor and valor—happy to accept glory as long as he can avoid real danger and come out with enough money for an ever-handy bottle of sack (cheap wine). Falstaff’s is a hard fat suit to fill, and Henry Porreca’s performance actually grows throughout the evening from comic relief to darkly humorous commentator on what it means to die for a cause (Falstaff would rather not). While Henry IV, with the help of the now-heroic Hal, leave the stage on a high note as their enemies have been defeated (at least for the moment—there’s also a Henry IV, Part 2), director Sean Kelly shrewdly gives Falstaff the play’s final beat, which Porreca delivers splendidly.
While Falstaff is the figure that remains most prominent in the public’s imagination, the play is really Hal’s story, and Caleb Wimble is superb in the role. As Hal enjoys his time with Falstaff and his equally dissipated cohorts, you can also see him holding something in reserve, ready to distance himself when the time comes and assume the role of leadership. Along with this distance, however, is the genuine affection Hal has for the great “clay-brain’d guts” that is Falstaff, and Wimble lets us see all of Hal’s feelings as well as his machinations with well-spoken grace.
Other strong presences contribute to the play’s success. Colin Bonnington is terrific as the aptly named Hotspur, a young man who is strong in battle but clumsily abrasive in any other social situation (including dealing with his wife, well-played by Elise D’Avella). Henry Moncure III delivers a subtle performance as the treacherous Earl of Worcester, and Alan Harbaugh succeeds in portraying a valiant nobleman on the “enemy” side, the Earl of Douglas. As Falstaff’s (and, for most of the play, Hal’s) riffraff companions, M. Kearney, Aaron Tanzer, David Hastings, and Ron Ozer all score their share of laughs, as does Valerie Hutchinson as a lascivious Mistress Quickly.
Director Kelly orchestrates an evening of battle scenes, historical intrigue, and raunchy low comedy with great finesse. If you can, see the Arden Shakespeare Gild’s production on a beautiful summer evening—but if it’s a lousy evening, see it anyway (just be sure to get an extra lemonade at intermission).
HENRY IV, PART 1
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sean Kelly
June 22-30, 2012
Arden Shakespeare Gild
Frank Stephens Memorial Theatre & Gild Hall
2126 The Highway
Arden, DE 19810