Henry IV, Part 1
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jim Helsinger
Starring Jim Ireland, Benjamin Bonenfant, and Phillip Nolan
This may well be the most Shakespearean Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. We begin with a taped lecture by Jim Helsinger as he valiantly attempts to clarify the plot, the environment and who’s who in this complex drama. He uses cartoon representations of the players and a complex family tree that looks Appendix 4-E of an unpublished Tolkien novel. But the story is simplicity at its heart. People fight over who should be king. They fight with the same fervor as today’s electorate: there are drunks and scoundrels, a wastrel son in line for the throne, an Uno deck of plot points that even Shakespeare would have trouble diagramming.
But now it’s time to abandon this school bookery and do what Orlando Shakes does best: put people on stage, limit their ability to speechify, and let them go at it with cutlery and flashing lights. As the political situation deteriorates Hal snaps out of a lifetime of partying and becomes a responsible and sword handy young warrior. But his best work happens in the dive bar, and that’s where the best supporting action flows from the brilliant comic talents of Phillip Nolan, Ann Hering and Brandon Roberts. Nolan even gets his own death scene tonight, but fortunate for all of us, he gets better by the closing curtain.
The stage spins, the trap door flies up and down and the female support cast even get a chance to shave some of the manliness off the story. Nolan may not technically be the lead here, but he get most of the yucks and most of the applause. King Henry (Ireland) played an excellent counterweight, he was serious as cancer, righteously angry at the rebellion, and clearly and old man prepping for what might be his last battle. Swarthy and angry Hotspur (Walter Kmiec) adds vigor, and his beautiful wife Lady Percy (Tracie Lane) humanizes him as she begs to know where he’s going to battle. The Earl of Lancaster (Tim Williams) might be a loyal opposition, but that’s not a career move in medieval England. But I’ll say this for Mr. Williams: he’s man who can wear a wolf pelt with class. Anne Hering played both upstairs and downstairs roles but her bawdy Hostess Quickly worked best as the shady land trying to pawn Falstaff’s liver. There’s at least a barrel of beer in him.
The sword fights are multitudinous and well executed under Tony Simotes direction, and Mr. Nolan gets multiple rides on the floor lift. I sat next to a young actor known for his works at a small space south of town, and this was apparently his first Shakespeare production. We were both impressed, I for the technical quality of the action, and he for the clarity of the story. That strong praise for this notoriously complex script. But this show has it all: a reasonably clear plot, a high level of energy and great action, comedy and pathos. There were seats available at the show I saw, I suggest you help fix that problem. Do not be intimidates by this plot: anytime you risk getting lost, they have stage fight. It’s everything you might want in a classic drama.