Henry IV, Part One: Much Humor, Less Horror

Of all of Shakespeare's histories, I like the two Henry IV plays the best, for their jarring combination of ribald humor and bloody horror. Over the last few years, I have appreciated them even more for their uncanny parallels to present political realities. Here we see a world leader's son spending his youth in debauchery, then turning about-face to assume his father's mantle, self-righteous in his sense of destiny. Here we see soldiers dying in a war that should never have happened, its perpetrator deceived and manipulated by his advisers. Here we see ordinary people, in taverns where they drink and in battlefields where they die, sacrificing their own destinies for another man's. And here we see the occasional extraordinary old drunk who speaks the truth better than a ruler or a Rumsfeld: "What is honor? A word."

These parallels are not lost on director Marc Silberschatz, whose troupe, Twenty Feet Productions, is presenting in repertory the eight plays that ponder the devastating Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York in 14th- and 15th-century Britain and France. The cycle, Silberschatz says, shows how "a diseased morality acts on a people like a cancer." Retelling this story "gives us a chance to examine what we are doing today" in our own domestic and international affairs.

Whether this marathon makes the present-day connection is best evaluated by those who, like the 12 actors themselves, had the stamina to take in the entire experience. With only two plays to go on, I can report that Richard II, reviewed elsewhere on this site, effectively portrays the diseased morality that initiated nearly a hundred years of bloodshed. The actors do not have to use neckties or cigars to demonstrate how easily a vain and cocksure leader can be toppled by cunning and venal opponents. The subsequent play, Henry IV Part One, is rocky and rushed, though the effects of the growing cancer remain clear.

The secret of a good Henry IV is in maintaining a perfect balance between the comic and the tragic, but in this production the comic wins hands down.

Richard Brundage commands the stage as literature's most lovable philosopher-drunk, Sir John Falstaff. In Richard II, Brundage plays the dominating Duke of York with incongruous timidity, but here you get a real Falstaff, savoring each juicy line like an epicure tasting wine, rolling the words delightedly around the tongue with deliberate pace and timing, moving and gesturing effortlessly.

Alas, he has an inadequate match in Albert Aeed as Prince Hal, the king's heir. Admittedly, this is a difficult role for any actor

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