Growing up fast with Falstaff

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By Doug Deuchler

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Shakespeare's history plays are never as well-known, or performed as often, as his comedies and tragedies. That's why it's so exciting that Oak Park Festival Theatre's current production is a fusing of both parts of Henry IV. This solid new adaptation makes for vigorous, crowd-pleasing entertainment, though near the end, the 3-hour evening (with one intermission) can feel unwieldy, even blurry.

This accessible mounting of The History of King Henry the Fourth is carefully staged and quickly paced. Director (and adapter) Stanton Davis has trimmed and spliced both Henry the IV, Part 1 and Part 2 into a single work. Normally this sprawling material is offered as two separate plays. The sequel is self-contained yet often neglected, which is a shame as it's chock full of comedy and has a very compelling, bittersweet ending.

Director Davis brings Shakespeare's words to life so it's easy to understand what's being said. There are no phony British accents and the verse is delivered intelligently and clearly.

Though it may seem surprising today, the first of the two plays was the most popular of all the Bard's works in his own day. There is a lot of swashbuckling swordplay, intense rivalry between two young noblemen, and a poignant family drama focusing on a father's worries about his renegade, straying son. It's no wonder Shakespeare wrote the sequel. Hollywood did not invent the pattern of following a popular money-maker with a "further adventures" continuing saga.

Despite the fact that both Parts 1 and 2 were named for the father, Henry IV, the coming-of-age story focuses on Prince Hal, a troubled royal son who transforms from a dissolute party animal into a serious, noble monarch. Hal's realization that he will soon inherit the throne from his ailing father ultimately causes him to evaluate his current lifestyle and mature into a dignified leader.

Dennis Grimes creates a complex, credible Prince Hal, a slumming royal, carousing in sleazy taverns and brothels, drinking, wenching, and even robbing with his low-life pals. He evolves from a spoiled, smart-ass frat boy type who has an uneasy relationship with his father into a thoughtful adult capable of wearing the crown.

This is a challenging show with lots to juggle — from a large cast involved in frequent episodes of action to scenes of quiet intensity showcasing memorable characters. Director Davis keeps it all on track. There are fast-paced battle scenes choreographed with precision as well as lots of broad comic moments.

Jack Hickey is both touching and hilarious as Falstaff, a rotund, lusty old knight, totally without conscience and devoted to the sins of the flesh. He's a manipulative liar who resembles a dissipated Santa Claus. Falstaff is a surrogate father for Hal. Hickey plays Shakespeare's best-loved clown with a hint of sadness and shame behind his bombastic, sloppy-drunk selfishness.

Adam Meredith is cocky, hot-headed Hotspur, a Scottish warrior who is Prince Hal's archrival and foil. Hotspur's loving, strong-willed wife is played by Maggie Kettering.

Prostitute Doll Tearsheet is played with fire yet sympathetically by Charlie Cascino. Pub hostess Mistress Quickly is Sara M. Nichols.

Prince Hal's assertive brother, John of Lancaster, is played by Michael Moran.

The title role of the eloquent king is played by Michael Sherwin, who physically appears to be nearly the same age as the actor playing his rebellious, not-so-princely son.

The bloody battlefield sequences are especially vivid and well staged. Geoff Coates, the fight choregrapher, is assisted by Charlie Cascino.

The actresses do not just play ladies or wenches, but often double up in the big crowd scenes and battles, thus making the company seem like it's a proverbial cast of thousands.

Aimee Hanyzewski's set incorporates metal scaffolding that provides space on several levels. It's a flexible playing field that accommodates everything from full-on stage combat to a dying king's bed chamber to a tawdry tavern and brothel.

Joseph Fosco's sound design works well, too. The rumblings during battle almost sound like there's a tornado approaching.

Christopher Ballou is assistant director.

The production moves at a breakneck pace, which seems perfect. Unfortunately, we're rather saturated by all the crowds and action by the third and final hour. The second act feels elongated, providing perhaps too much more to absorb. There are 20-some actors with doubling up of a number of roles, so some characters who have apparently been reduced to bit parts grow difficult to sort out. It's all solid acting yet slightly disorienting.

Experiencing live performances of Shakespeare's works is fulfilling on many levels. I always enjoy hearing familiar quotes in their original context, such as when sleepless, troubled King Henry says, "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown."

The vigorous history of an immature playboy prince who grows up to lead his nation makes a unique, beautiful evening in Oak Park's Austin Gardens, located just off Lake Street, a block from Downtown Oak Park. Bring your bug spray, some tasty grub, and a comfy chair or blanket for a picnic in the park before the show even begins.

Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.

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