CEDAR CITY — In a moment of atypical solemnness the lovable drunkard Falstaff asks, “What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air.” So sets one of the heavier themes of Henry IV, Part One. This story, a continuation of the tale begun in Richard II and continued on in Part 2 then in Henry V, tells a British tale of the fight of several men to achieve and maintain honor: honor in battle, honor in manhood and honor in family. Henry IV, the usurper of the English thrown, seeks to maintain his standings in the conflicts that continue to plague the English nation. The noble Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, refuses to accept the demands of King Henry IV as he seeks to maintain his pride. Alternately, Henry’s son Prince Hal shirks his father’s definition of honorable behavior and spends his time with the rough and rowdy Falstaff. The action of the play traces the highs and lows of these three men while they grapple with what they believe will bring them true honor.
As far as Shakespeare’s histories go, this one certainly is typical. Complex family trees and age-old feuds fuel the conflict of the plot. It may take a while for the audience to get a grasp on the overarching narrative (e.g., who is related to who, why everyone is really angry at each other). It will probably help potential audience members to brush up on English history before seeing the show. However, after some reading the interpersonal conflicts and Shakespeare’s wit will still be more than enough to keep audience members entertained.
This production, directed by Brian Vaughn, provides this history play with classic Shakespearean energy. While some of the younger actors supplied a taste of modernity, the older actors and the functional blocking contributed to the regality of the tale. I noticed that there was a sense of balance to everything in the play. Shakespeare masterfully crafted this history to be full of comedy, intensity, and heartache. Vaughn constructed a production that juggled those elements well as it shifted from humor to gravity and back again with ease. This played especially well in the flow from one scene to the next, but even the skillful and tiny shifts in energy within the scenes brought the audience along in the ups and downs of Shakespeare’s varied text. Vaughn showed his skill as the audience was equally tuned into the well-choreographed battle (created by fight director fight director Christopher DuVal) as they were to the disgustingly funny tavern scenes.
Prince Hal (Sam Ashdown) and Henry Hostpur (Steve Wojtas) made these dramatic shifts from high to low seem effortless. Hotspur, a character fueled by anger in his search of pride and honor, provided such a varied performance that I never grew tired of his anger. Wojtas’s portrayal of a sentimental hothead showed the many possible sides of frustration and was extremely relatable. Hostspur’s wife Lady Percy (Erika Haaland) mirrored Hotspur’s shifting anger with similar shifts between love, lust, and boldness. Hal was tasked with more dramatic shifts than Hotspur as he transitioned from lighthearted playboy to earnest son and warrior. Wojtas portrayal of the easy-going Hal was exactly as I have grown to view Hal in my time with Shakespeare’s histories and his ease in emotional transition made me eager to see him as the grown and valiant Henry V.
Though dashing and sincere as the young men of Henry IV, Part One are, the most anticipated character for me is always Falstaff. This production’s Falstaff (Henry Woronicz) brought something to the role that I hadn’t expected: dignity. Woronicz played his Falstaff fat-suit very well, but I was never completely able to see him as the lowly tubby sidekick that the language portends Falstaff to be. After I overcame my expectations for the sloppy slanderer, I was happy to go along with Woronicz’s performance. He played the scheming aspect of Falstaff well and spoke his lines with great energy and imagery. I was a little thrown, however, at the stiffness of the fat-suit itself. Its stiffness kept reminding me that it wasn’t real. I wondered if there was a way to put a little more jiggle into Falstaff’s jolly belly.
Even with the stiffness of Falstaff’s body rolls, the most pleasing visual element was the costuming, designed by David Kay Mickelsen. Set against the simplicity of the lightly textured wooden set, the wildly textured costumes grabbed my eye and, frankly, made me want to run up on stage and feel every costume. Thankfully, I restrained myself from such actions and just took joy in every new texture that entered the stage. Even the pillow, used as a faux-crown in one of my favorite scenes of the play and this production, was textured in a way that was a little mesmerizing. The look of embroidery on some of the elder’s cloaks side by side with the busyness of the young men’s garb created a life for the characters as well as a true world for the play.
I was somewhat jostled out of the enthralling world of the play upon the introduction of the character of Owen Glendower (Jack Greenman). Like many of Shakespeare’s mystical characters, the character appears bringing in a little fantasy and then continues in a fantastical vein for the rest of the play (also seen in the character of Pinch in Comedy of Errors). It takes true talent to help these characters fit in with the rest. Glendower has double the challenge as the character also functions as a parody of Welshmen. I was disappointed at this production’s treatment of the character. His costuming, vocal tone and overall energy pushed Glendower towards the humorous side of the show, but without any of the wit of Falstaff or Poins (Connor Bond). I was also a little disappointed in the performance of Henry IV (Larry Bull). Bull’s talent was there, but he seemed unsure on his feet, and I worried that he would fall over. That made it more difficult to believe that he could command the stage as a king.
My misgivings aside, I found this a wonderful experience in British history immersion. Vaughn’s attention to balance, Mickelsen’s focus on texture and an immensely skillful (and did I mention dashing?) cast gave Henry IV, Part One the honorable seat of my favorite play in the series.