Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot focuses less on the title character, who only recently usurped Richard II for the throne, and more on his son Prince Hal and Hal's friend Falstaff, his surrogate father. Hal is a lazy playboy who spends the majority of his time with Falstaff and their friends drinking in bars while his father spends his time thwarting potential uprisings from families like the disgruntled Percy clan who believe their help in getting Henry on the throne has gone unrewarded. With the crown weighing heavily on his head, King Henry has not only a heavy burden but a son he doesn't approve of, while Harry Percy, also called Hotspur, makes it his mission to get justice for his family. This sets in motion an intense battle that includes a fateful meeting between Prince Hal and Hotspur.
While the play is entitled "Part I" it's actually one of a series of plays Shakespeare wrote that trace the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V. And while it may be just one title in this group of plays, you don't need to have seen or have knowledge of any of the actions from the previous or post works to comprehend the action, as the play itself is self-contained enough to work as a stand-alone piece. However, some knowledge of the characters and situations in the drama will most likely make it a more worthwhile experience.
Shakespeare's characters and action of the play alternate between the comical scenes that feature the buffoonish behavior of Falstaff and Hal and the more serious and weightier moments that feature Hotspur and King Henry. Director Asia Osborne does well to balance the lighthearted, comical moments with the more serious and dramatic ones, which is something that past productions of this play I've seen haven't always achieved. In doing so, it binds the pieces together into a more seamless whole. Osborne's cast also achieve a fine balance not only in portraying the shifting tones of the piece but also the range of emotions and the changes their characters go through.
Osborne has employed a small ensemble of just 12 actors, including four who play the main characters, which leaves the remaining eight to each play numerous parts including roles that are pivotal to the plot. All eight are excellent in playing this vast range of individuals. As King Henry, Eric Schoen is both commanding and conflicted in portraying how Henry is deeply haunted by his actions. Tony Latham infuses Hal with a lighthearted air but also a developing serious side that echoes his evolving maturity and his realization that it's time to take his life seriously. As Falstaff, Keath Hall is larger than life, boisterous and highly likable, which makes it clear why Hal and so many others are immediately drawn to him. Joshua Murphy is authoritative, magnetic, vengeful, angry and persuasive as Hotspur. All four create highly unique and identifiable characters full of nuance and passion.
The trend of late for Shakespeare plays seems to be to either update the setting of his plays to modern times or a different period from the original, change the genders of the main characters, or incorporate other elements into the piece to give it some additional resonance. Osborne doesn't stray too far from Shakespeare's original intent, though she does have some of the female ensemble members portray male roles, which works quite effectively, and also adds in a few bits of classic rock music, played humorously by Seth Scott on an electric bass, which doesn't really add or subtract anything from the whole. She also incorporates into her production design a large throne that is reminiscent of the one in "Game of Thrones" and that is always present on stage as, I'm assuming, a tie-in to that other famous battle of royals. Tiana Torrilhon's design for that throne is quite stunning and, while the rest of her set pieces are fairly minimal, it actually works incredibly well with Stacey Walston's excellent lighting and Peter Bish's evocative sound effects to expertly and easily portray the various locales of the story. The combination of lighting, with its rich, deep blues and reds, and sound effects also highlights the battle sequences (though on the night I went, the stage battles weren't as intense as other fight sequences I've seen in the past from this company); a few musical interludes, when combined with Osborne's staging, are also quite stunning. The beautiful costume designs by Maci Hosler are infused with an abundance of period fabrics and touches.
In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare effectively combines a political story with a coming of age tale. With a very good cast and direction that is well balanced, Southwest Shakespeare Company's production is not only dramatic but highly entertaining.
Henry IV, Part I, through April 7th, 2018, at the Farnsworth Studio at the Mesa Arts Center, 1 East Main Street in Mesa AZ. Tickets can be purchased at swshakespeare.org or by calling 480-644-6500
Director: Asia Osborne