The theater season ends with a spectacular version of ‘Henry IV, Part 1’
In an instant everything changes: the dusky convivial sounds of an expectant audience give way to the blare of trumpets and the martial din of running boots as a troop of young men pours onto the stage to circle it, stamping their wooden staffs with a shout. Enter the king.
Thus Shakespeare Santa Cruz and its audience join an unbroken line of four centuries to perform and hear the tale of a crown taken in rebellion, nearly lost in pride, then won in just battle; of a wastrel who becomes worthy of his noble heritage, and of a dazzling hothead who burns too bright. Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime, the story behind “Henry IV, Part 1” was as familiar to Elizabethans as the Kennedy story is to modern Americans. But for today’s theatergoers, Shakespeare’s “History Plays” are burdened with obscure references whose significance eludes us. As written, the opening scene of “Henry IV,” wherein the king and his confidants converse at length about incidents and characters we haven’t met and do not yet understand, threatens theatrical death upon arrival in the 21st century.
But oh, clever Shakespeare Santa Cruz. In the stirring opening we meet a king—but not the king we came to meet: we meet the king our king deposed—in a previous play. In brilliant staging, director Scott Wentworth delivers a synopsis of how history brought us here, told in excerpts from Shakespeare’s “Richard II.”
As we reach the beginning of the play we came to see, an actor says, “… Previously, in ‘Richard II’” and the audience laughs at the artful conspiracy. Just as Shakespeare took liberties to make history into theater, so does Shakespeare Santa Cruz—and dramaturge Michael Warren liberates the Bard, giving the audience this back story it needs to understand the plot, paring the script to keep the pace at a pleasant breakneck.
Not even Elizabethan audiences wanted just a history lesson. In “Henry IV, Part 1,” William gives us some of his funniest scenes and three of his most memorable characters. The son of King Henry, Prince Hal, spends his time in taverns and whorehouses among thieves and drunkards. As Hal, we meet Erik Heger, a scruffily handsome leather-jacketed figure lounging at the foot of the stage, offering humorous asides to the audience. A complex role that has challenged theater’s greatest actors, in a soliloquy we learn that Hal’s prodigal behavior is calculated to make his anticipated redemption all the more impressive to his father, the king. Heger nevertheless rollicks convincingly with the lowlifes, and just as believably redeems himself in brave battle in a fluid performance that integrates all contradictions. As Scene two opens, we find Hal exchanging humorous insults with “a goodly portly man,” perhaps most beloved of all Shakespeare’s creations, Sir John Falstaff, played with wry naturalism by Richard Ziman. A scoundrel and profligate quipster, Falstaff’s irreverences are some of Shakespeare’s cleverest puns delivered with bravura by Ziman who manages to reveal under “all that flesh” a frail human we all recognize. Ziman gives us a man we’d like to know (checking our pockets as we leave), as “round” a Falstaff as I’ve ever seen.
In counterpoint, the valiant Hotspur who leads the rebellion against the king is dark, slender, brooding J. Todd Adams, electric with energy, his speech staccato but piercingly clear, milking innuendo with impeccable timing, a magnetic force on stage. He is the hero whose cause is just—and as proud and peevish as a man in the right can be. A battlefield scene unites all in the end, with thrilling swordplay and effects.
Shakespeare Santa Cruz outdoes itself in this production. They slide us easily into the language, supported by physical acting and inventive staging. The Glen plays its role perfectly: cue the fog rising around the battles; bring up the lights illuminating the trees as the action moves to the countryside. All the strutting and fretting we want, with a bawdy bit or two for the groundlings: an extraordinary achievement.
“Henry IV, Part 1” plays through Aug. 28 at UCSC. For more information, visit shakespearesantacruz.org.