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Review: ‘Henry IV’ at the Dallas Theater Center

by Jerome Weeks 29 Sep 2010 8:02 AM

The DTC’s ‘Henry IV’ isn’t so much a deluxe version of Shakespeare’s Falstaff-history plays as a thin and forcibly stripped-down one.


The Dallas Theater Center has opened its new season at the Wyly Theatre with both parts of William Shakespeare’s history play, Henry IV. The pair of dramas is best known for the larger-than-life, carousing character of Falstaff. But in his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says this Falstaff feels thin.

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Actor Randy Moore is the long-time local stage favorite who left for Colorado some 15 years ago — where he’s continued to rack up acting awards. Moore has returned to the Theater Center to play Sir John Falstaff, a plum, high-caloric role. To be sure, Moore has been padded out with the necessary round belly to play Shakespeare’s great comic overindulger. It’s actually his Falstaff character – and the entire production – that feels stripped down and emotionally skinny.

With Henry IV, Shakespeare made a major advance in writing history plays. He got beyond the same old bully-boy barons fighting for the throne. Over the course of his two history tetralogies, Shakespeare faces his era’s overriding political issues: What makes a worthy king? And how do we remove a bad one? But here the playwright also offers a colorful, affecting image of England outside the royal court. It’s an image textured with archbishops and justices of the peace, with thieves and tavern keepers. Henry IV has a wider, more panoramic range than any other history play from the period.

But artistic director Kevin Moriarty has lopped off whole chunks from this panorama — until it’s more portrait than landscape.

Steven Walters, Randy Moore and Cliff Miller, front; Teddy Spencer, Graham Dudley, Dexter Hostetter, back —  in Henry IV. Photo by Linda Blase

Some condensing is by necessity, of course. Slimming the two Henry IV plays into a single drama is often done — Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight being the relevant cinematic example. If you’ve seen that 1965 film, though, you’ve seen characters like Justice Shallow, characters who never appear onstage here. Or if they do appear, they’re like Doll Tearsheet (Abbey Siegworth) or Mistress Quickly (Christina Vela) — drastically reduced. [See footnote for more detail about the textual changes.]

Moriarty has depopulated just about everything that doesn’t advance his two main storylines: Falstaff’s rise and fall with his young friend, Prince Hal, and Hal’s own rise and rise — from hijinks with his drinking buddies to his attempt to redeem himself in the eyes of his ailing father, King Henry IV (Kurt Rhoads).

With all these cuts, Falstaff loses some serious emotional weight. Randy Moore does have his moments – like his death in battle, a lovely bit of mimed comedy.  But we don’t get Falstaff’s tainted nostalgia with Justice Shallow, his sense of a real sex life with Doll or Quickly. Falstaff here is little more than a funny old clown who becomes a sad old clown. Moore could practically wear slap shoes and a red nose.

Worst of all, perhaps, we don’t get the depths of Falstaff’s joyful cynicism.

In creating Falstaff, Shakespeare had the courage of the man’s irresponsibility. He could have kept his fat knight merely an audience-pleasing slacker: the Biggest Lebowski. But Falstaff cold-bloodedly dragoons the feeble and the weak into the king’s army for his own profit. His actions are at once cowardly, courageous and chilling: Honor, he says, is nothing but a word. As Harold Bloom has reminded us, if Falstaff lies and cheats, he also speaks the ugly truth. He’ll have no part of grand military ambitions, of the nobility’s squabbles over who gets to wear a shiny crown. Falstaff stands determinedly outside the play’s morality, outside history.

But this means we come to understand (unhappily) that no matter how lovable Falstaff is, the prince — if he is to be king — will have to reject his friend. Yet this crucial sequence — military-draftees-meeting-their-doom-while-Falstaff-shrugs-it-off — zips by here without much reflection.

Actually, a lot of sequences zip by here. Moriarty dovetails his scenes, so dialogue from one often begins even before another is over. It’s a smart, peppy technique except it leads him into rushing scenes that should be allowed to resonate. His all-over, rambunctious direction — which he’s been doing since Tommy — contributes to this. His actors already must struggle to hold our focus onstage because their fellow performers are sprinting around various platforms and noisily clambering a scaffolding tower above us.

A sense of chaos, of boundary-breaking violence, certainly fits, say, the climactic Battle of Shrewsbury. And goofing on theatergoers suits the louche atmosphere of the Boar’s Head Tavern with Falstaff and Friends. But Moriarty employs these techniques so often they cease to have a specific, localized impact and become a general, jittery texture of distracting comic bits or noisy running in place.

When Moriarty does want us to pay attention, when he grants a moment some stillness and significance, he brings on music to make his point. This is not just a film score’s underlining a scene with a background track — it’s the Broadway musical’s way of framing and amplifying an emotion with a Big Number, front and center.

Arguably, Rufus Wainwright’s “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” — which Prince Hal sings at one of his low points — chimes with Hal’s realization that he’s going to have to forgo all the wine, women and highway robbery. But rather than deepening or opening up those regrets, the song tells us what we already know. And it does so with contemporary references (jelly beans?) that take us out of the moment entirely. It’s distracting.

Steven Walters and Kurt Rhoads, l to r, in Henry IV. Photo by Linda Blase

So not only do we lose much of Shakespeare’s social texture, we don’t feel much for the relationships that are here, particularly the central one between Hal and Falstaff. There are scenes that feel real – like when Kurt Rhoads, as King Henry, rages at his wastrel son, expressing the anger and pain of paternal disappointment.

Henry: “Tell me how else could such immoderate and low desires, such poor, such base, such unholy deeds and rotten friends accompany the greatness of thy blood? … For all the world, as thou art at this hour, I do not see myself in thee.”

Even in such moments, though, it doesn’t help that Walters is funny and deft but a little old for Hal and his antics. By the end, he’s like some Generation X-er who finally moves out of his parents’ basement to get his own apartment.

The real Prince Hal was 16 at the Battle of Shrewsbury – and got an arrow in his face for his efforts. My concern isn’t with 15th-century history (Shakespeare and his Tudor sources leave that far, far behind). It’s about the kind of emotional impact that comes when a young man has to step up into some very big shoes – like being a king — and in doing so, must also reject the very man who shaped and shared his life. Imagine the emotions that must whipsaw through him: “My father is dead, but now I am king. And if I’m going to succeed in this role, if I’m going to survive, I must crush an old, feeble, fat man who has practically raised me.”

Such a tormented character would carry so much more freight than watching an unemployed man pushing 30 who decides at last, “You know, maybe I should take up Dad on that job offer.”

Which is perhaps why, when Walters’ Hal does banish Falstaff, we don’t get the sense that he’s crushing his own soul. Falstaff may have been a bad surrogate father, but he was the father who loved Hal with a whole-hearted love. Walters plays the scene as if Hal is already the calculating politician who must deny himself for his country, who will lead that country into war — a Prince Hal who is, in short, already like his chilly leader-father, Henry IV.  That’s a legitimate take on the character (given Hal’s opening claim that his layabout existence has been an act). But it adds to the show’s already streamlined emotional feel. We never sense the youthful heartache inside, the inner turmoil that Walters delivered so well in The Beauty Plays.

All of this – the breathless pace, the heavy editing to keep things simple, the restless activity, the audience-participation gimmicks, the dollop of pop music to help us feel something – all of this seems to be Moriarty’s approach to Epic Shakespeare. Last season, it led to A Midsummer Night’s Dream done up as a dance party. All fun, only a little depth.

Admittedly, it’s a popular approach — audiences responded to Midsummer. So now we’ve gotten a Henry IV that you may well find entertaining – if you’ve never seen Henry IV before.

Otherwise, this is Short-Attention-Span Shakespeare. Shakespeare with liposuction.

Christina Vela and Steven Walters in Henry IV. Photo by Nan Coulter

*Historical/textual note for the Shakespeareans who care:

Some of what Moriarty has done to the original texts is shrewd. For example, he’s cut Rumor’s prologue and epilogue entirely from Pt 2. But to conclude the whole show, he’s sliced out King Henry IV’s opening speech — his put-the-war-behind-us-and-unite-the-country address from Pt 1 — and given it to Prince Hal all the way at the far end of Pt. 2. Although it makes Hal’s exit a little talky, it’s smart because a) it gives us a final impression of him other than his booting Falstaff to the curb to die. And b) it lends him the air of being already king-like with the kind of inspiring rhetoric he employs in Henry V. Short of stealing that play’s St. Crispin’s Day speech and improbably sticking it in somewhere, it makes for an effectively stirring finish for Hal.

On the other hand, Moriarty’s ending does cut out the arrests of Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly. When trimmed the way it is here, all of Pt 2 becomes, more or less, the Fall of Falstaff, a common choice for adapter/condensers. But Shakespeare actually conveys something broader than just the aging fat man’s decline. With Falstaff’s dismissal, plus Doll and Quickly’s arrests, we get a sense — as we do in Henry V with the hanging of Bardolph — of the costs and consequences of this new king and his New Order. An older, more rogue-ish, more merrily illegal England is being suppressed. It’s a rousing, nationalist regime that’s now in charge, but also a much sterner one.

As many adapters do, Moriarty concludes with the fat knight’s death — taken from a scene recounted by Quickly in Henry V. Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight was mentioned above not only because it’s one of the very few cinematic versions of Falstaff available to the average theatergoer/DVD renter. It’s also, I think, the inspiration for Moriarty’s choice to have Falstaff’s coffin on its way to the graveyard trundled out on a wooden push-cart. Moriarty, though, doesn’t go for Welles’ undermining touch of humor in that otherwise stark and somber scene: In the film, Falstaff’s coffin is gigantic. Instead, Moriarty has two coffins — the first time I’ve seen Henry IV’s funeral and Falstaff’s united like this. It nicely underscores Moriarty’s double-paternal plotline. Prince Hal has lost both of his ‘fathers.’ He’s on his own.

Other textural changes tend to be small. But one is telling/irritating.

Falstaff’s “honor” speech is one of Shakespeare’ most famous comic monologues, a bit of deconstruction-work that leaves the word honor little more than a meaningless belch of air. Falstaff concludes with the triumphant dismissal, “Honor is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.”

A scutcheon (or escutcheon) is the shield that often appears on a coat of arms. And as Shakespeare well knew at the time — because he did it himself — a coat of arms could be bought. It was important enough for Shakespeare because he was completing the process of becoming an officially-recognized gentleman, a process started — and abandoned, we still don’t know fully why — by his father. So Shakespeare tidied up the family honor by greasing a few palms (we know he probably did this because of a later complaint against the official who sold him the coat of arms).

In short, to Falstaff, battlefield honor — despite the high value placed on it by the warrior class —  is just some showy title you can buy to hang on your wall. Another pretty lie to justify murder and pillage.

But Moriarty — fearing that Falstaff’s climactic scorn would be lost on an audience that doesn’t know what an escutcheon is — Moriarty changed the line to “Honor is a mere funeral decoration.”

Which is what, exactly?

There’s some justification for the ‘funeral’ part: Falstaff just declared that the man who has honor is “he that died o’ Wednesday.” But ‘funeral decoration’ is so vague and such a modern-sounding term — it was never used by Shakespeare — it’s almost as jarring or as puzzling as an antique term no one understands, like scutcheon. Does Falstaff mean a nice floral arrangement? A big crepe sash on the casket? A handsomely printed program?

The line can’t be cut — Falstaff’s “catechism” would be without any conclusion. So if we’re going down this road — if we’re going to change Hamlet’s “bare bodkin” to “bare dagger” and Julius Caesar’s “ides of March” to “March 15th” — then, how about this, instead?

“Honor is nothing but a shiny gravestone.”