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Kings, rebels, princes, and drunks

First Presbyterian Theater opens its new season with Henry IV

By Michael Summers

michael_summers@fortwaynereader.com

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-08-21


Sequelitis. Even The Bard wasn’t immune.

Among drama scholars and aficionados, Henry IV Part I is considered one of Shakespeare’s liveliest, most popular histories and, in the debauched knight Falstaff, features one of his most indelible characters.

But Henry IV Part II… not so much. Not that the second part of Henry IV is bad, but it’s generally considered far weaker than its predecessor. After establishing a cast of characters and their tangled relationships and motivations in Part I, Part II suddenly introduces a whole new range of new characters, with scenes and situations that seem redundant. “It feels a little like he was stealing from himself,” says Jack Cantey, who directs and adapted the First Presbyterian Theatre’s production of Henry IV Parts I and II, called Henry IV: Making A King. “Many of the scenes feel like rehashes of stronger scenes in Part I.”

As we said, Cantey is hardly the first to draw this conclusion, and the relatively weakness of Part II presents a problem for any adaptation of the story, since at the end of Part I, it’s clear the story isn’t finished. The relationships between King Henry IV, his (initially) neer-do-well son Prince Hal, and Falstaff aren’t resolved satisfactorily — there needs to be a follow-up. But it’s been suggested that when he set out to tell us “what happens next,” to tell us what happened between Henry IV and Henry V, Shakespeare didn’t have enough new material for a full-length play.

“Well, I don’t know about that,” says Cantey, who also adapted a production of Hamlet with Greg Stieber in 2007. “But you know how you go to a big blockbuster movie that you know is supposed to be part of a franchise, so it’s set up for a sequel? That’s sort of how Part I ends. So I wanted to find a way to incorporate parts from Part II, especially the King’s death, coronation, and the culmination of the relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff.”

And Cantey says that when he really started looking at the text, the decisions were relatively easy to make. “The structure of Part I is so much stronger, with the comedic scenes, the court scenes, and the battle scenes. The scenes that are almost identical to them in Part II were easy to just say ‘no’ to. I was left with, ‘what scenes do I need to help finish these narratives — the king’s narrative, and the prince’s, and Falstaff’s?”

In Henry IV: Making A King, the titular monarch (played by FPT Artistic Director Thom Hofrichter) is trying to hold his kingdom together in the face of a rebellion lead by Worcester (Scott Rumage), his brother Northumberland (Michael Young), Worcester’s nephew Hotspur (Scott Hess) and others. Meanwhile, his son Prince Hal (David Kaehr) spends his time with a gang of low-lifes lead by the drunken knight Falstaff (Virginia Relph), rather than attending to his duties as heir to the throne.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular histories, and Cantey believes that part of the play’s appeal lies its scope. Shakespeare has always excelled at showing the personalities behind the politics, but where Henry IV differs is in its depiction of the seedier elements with Falstaff and his cronies. In fact, for a big chunk of its 400-year history, Henry IV was often seen not as King Henry IV’s story, not Prince Hal’s coming-of-age story, but as the story of Falstaff, a boisterous, charismatic, and larger-than-life character who tends to draw the audience’s attention.

Cantey says he didn’t want to go that route — he sees the real strength of the story as the relationships between Henry IV, Prince Hal, Falstaff and the rebel Hotspur — and even Virginia Relph, who plays Falstaff in FPT’s production, tries to play down the role a bit. “He’s the comic relief,” Relph tells me. “He’s not the important part of this show. It’s the Dick van Dyke Show. It’s schtick. It’s over-grown frat boys in a bar.”

Aging frat boy or not, Falstaff gets a lot of attention. Sure, he’s debauched, cynical, and sometimes buffoonish, but the audience needs to like Falstaff. And on a serious note, he provides a counter point to the stark ambitions of the kings and rebels. “He’s a world-weary guy,” Relph says. “He’s loyal to his king, but he’s tired of politics, he’s like ‘been there, done that, heard it, seen it…’.”

This isn’t Relph’s first “trouser role,” as she puts it. She’s been in an all-woman version of Othello; played Pompey in Measure for Measure; and Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, just to name a few. “Thom (Hofrichter, FPT’s artistic director) is great with ‘blind casting,’ which means disregarding what the traditional casting choices have been, and casting people who he thinks would do a great job,” says Relph. Hofrichter encouraged her to read for the part, and Cantey loved the idea of casting Relph as Falstaff; she has plenty of experience with Shakespeare, Cantey thought she had great comic timing, and at 6’ tall, she certainly fills the role’s stature.

Perhaps more importantly, Cantey felt she could tap into the character’s world-weariness and give the audience a look at Falstaff’s human side. As Relph says, once upon a time Falstaff was young and powerful and earned a knighthood serving his king. “And now he’s old, and I certainly can bring to bear the knowledge of someone who is getting older,” Relph laughs. She continues on a more serious note: “For a character like this, I think you have to have a person who can bring some of that ‘life experience’ to it. That’s what Jack and I have worked on.”

Cantey spent several months working on his adaptation of Henry IV Part I and II, with smaller changes being incorporated into the script since the cast started rehearsing. When asked how he feels about the result, he’ll only offer that he’s confident with the choices he made (Relph is less circumspect: “It’s awesome. He did a great job of combining those two plays.”). “I think what we have, what is shaping up during rehearsal, is a very full, satisfying story that we’re able to tell in a little over two hours,” Cantey says. “We’ll see what the hard-core Shakespeare people think, but cast is terrific; they’re really bringing out things about these characters that I had never realized before.”

Firt Presbyterian Theater presents:

Henry IV: Making a King
by William Shakespeare
adapted and directed by Jack Cantey
First Presbyterian Theater
300 West Wayne Street

Thursday Preview Performance: September 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Fridays & Saturdays, September 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, September 18 at 2 p.m.

Preview Performance: All tickets $10
Regular Performances
General Admission: $20/$24 if bought at the door
Seniors (over 60): $18/$22 if bought at the door
Full time students: 1st 30 free/$10 after or if bought at the door

Box Office opens August 31—Wednesday/Thursday/Friday from noon-5pm.
Call 422-6329 for tickets or information.
Tickets available online at firstpresbyteriantheater.com

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