OREM — Utah’s Grassroots Shakespeare Company (GSC) is one of the most innovative theatre companies in the state. As has been stated in many UTBA reviews of their work, they attempt to use Renaissance-era performance techniques to present Shakespeare‘s plays in a similar style to the plays’ original productions. Most notably, the company’s productions never have a director because theatre directors (the way modern audiences know the position) did not come into existence until roughly the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the fact that I am a fan of GSC, their latest offering, Henry IV, Part 1, shows why most productions need a director.
Although the play takes its name from a ruling king, the play focuses on his son, Prince Henry (called Hal or Harry and played by Steven Pond). Prince Hal is a roguish young man who plans to eventually fulfill his destiny as heir to the English throne. His rakish companions are headed by Sir John Falstaff (played by Davey Morrison Dillard), a fat self-serving old man who loves two things: alcohol and himself. Meanwhile, Prince Hal’s father, King Henry IV (Trevor Christensen), faces an insurrection among the English, Scottish, and Welsh nobles to usurp the throne, and the king must rely on his son to hold onto the English crown.
Pond was an enjoyable Prince Hal, and the actor seemed equally comfortable in a bawdy tavern as in a royal court. This made Pond’s character the nucleus of the play—a duty that Pond was able to fulfill well. Pond also provided a Prince Hal that was (correctly) a nice contrast to the hasty Hotspur (James Bounous). I enjoyed Pond’s cool demeanor in the tavern scene where the characters recount their robbery, and Pond’s excitement in battle was palpable. Bounous was the decisive Hotspur, a noble who seeks the English throne through violent means. I enjoyed how decisive Bounous made his Hotspur, and the frustration he showed with the society he was born in, which rewards bloodlines above competence, served as an excellent justification for the character’s actions in every scene.
As the iconic Sir John Falstaff, Dillard brought most of the humor to the play. Dillard was careful in crafting a Falstaff that was loveable in spite of (or perhaps because of) his many faults. Unlike all of the other characters in the play, whose actions flow out of their social class or place in history, Falstaff was a real, fully developed human being. Dillard showed that Falstaff’s cowardly actions during the battle or his disregard for the lives and needs of others are natural consequences of Falstaff’s philosophy in life. This is a remarkable feat for any actor, but all the more remarkable because Dillard was a last minute replacement for another performer and performed the entire play with his script in his hand. But the on stage script was almost a non-factor in the play; the fact that Falstaff was not as fat as the character traditionally is portrayed was much more distracting, especially with all the fat jokes in the script.
So after saying so many positive things about this production, why do I say that this production needed a director? Simply because this play lacked the cohesiveness and unity that modern audiences expect from a play. The cast did a serviceable job telling the story, but the overarching themes of the play and dilemmas facing Prince Hal were underexplored. I wish that someone in the company had thought to spend more time on the decisions Hal makes on his path to becoming a great king, especially the scene where he tells his father that he will fight at his side in battle.
I also would have preferred a change in the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff, which at the end of the play seemed almost exactly the same as what was shown in their first scene together. (A similar argument could be made about the relationship between Prince Hal and Henry IV.) In general, the cast seemed more concerned about making each scene its own pleasant vignette and less concerned about linking the scenes together into an entire work of art. In general, the production was a little rough in its transitions (with some late entrances and awkward line deliveries), which is a marked departure from the typical GSC production.
Yet, I enjoyed this production much more than last year’s GSC productions of Hamlet and Comedy of Errors. And, in keeping with every GSC production that I have ever seen, the cutting of the script is excellent and produces a 90-minute version of the play that serves as an excellent introduction to Shakespeare.