Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Razor-Sharp, Fresh Production of Shakespeare's Henry IV

Also see Richard's reviews of Orpheus Descending and Red

The California Shakespeare Theatre is presenting Dakin Matthews' special version of the Bard's Henry IV, Part One and Part Two at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre in the East Bay hills between Berkeley and Orinda, just off Highway 24. The former Cal Shakes artistic director has combined the two three-hour parts into a three hour five minute swift and clean version of the historical drama. Mr. Matthews' three hour forty five minute version recently played Lincoln Center where it won the Tony for the Best Revival of a Play. It played to full houses for its limited 58 performances. Mr. Matthews has been revising this two-part play since the late '70s with various versions that have appeared at the major regional theatres such as the South Coast Rep. This was my first experience of seeing the combination in a three hour two intermission account.

Dakin Matthews' adaptation is two cups of part one to one cup of part two. There are two intermissions during the three hour five minute performance. The production combines light comedy with the dark drama of England's civil war in the 15th Century. The light part is the relationship of Prince Hal (Sean Dugan) and Falstaff (Reg E. Cathey), or what can be called the rise and fall of the fat rougue who was the mentor, friend and all around bad influence on the future Henry V. The dark part is the conspiring of Henry Percy of Northumberland (Hector Correa) and his valiant hot-headed son Hotspur (Graham Shiels) who started in Richard II to take the crown of England from Prince Hal's father King Henry IV (James Carpenter). A civil war erupts as these two men conspire with Douglas the Scot (Liam Vincent), the Archbishop of York (Luis Oropeza) and Owen Glendower (Warren David Keith).

Henry IV shows the contrast of influence and politics within the lower class where Falstaff reigns supreme, the high aristocratic world of Henry IV where the king is the boss and how they merge to venomous effect, concluding with Prince Hal's famously cruel rejection of Falstaff at the end of the play. Many of the scenes involving Pistol and Robert Shallow have been pared down in this production, in which they are minor characters.

Director Mladen Kiselov and Dakin Matthews have produced a fast and smooth, clean cut presentation of the two worlds. This is graced by the acting of the complete ensemble. They have presented a simpler version of the Lancastrian wars that raged in the 15th century.

Henry IV is played somewhat in modern dress, but I was informed by the artistic director that it takes place during the depression years of the early '30s in no certain country. The costumes by Beaver Bauer are strictly '30s. The production music consists of songs from the swinging '40s and '50s with jazz riffs. The Battle of Shrewsbury is a real hoot with Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" in the background. Even Falstaff plays a mean sax at the beginning of the production. The set has a large metal cylinder that opens up to two rooms; the one on the left is the tavern for Falstaff and friends and the other is the war room during the civil strife. The oil barrels on each side of the stage make a reference to the current situation in Iraq.

Acting in this production is outstanding, with Reg E. Cathey (Obie ward member of the ensemble of Joseph Papp's Talk, and many Shakespearean plays including the Williamstown Theatre Festival) extremely effective as the most different Falstaff of those I have seen. He is not fat but sports a little "beer belly." He is a jiving old rascal with a boozy voice. Cathey is excellent as the epitome of a sharp con man. His speech on the meaning of honor after the battle is well done.

Sean Dugan (member of the American Repertory Theatre and played Timmy Kirk on HBO's Oz) plays the role of Prince Hal at the beginning as a spoiled adolescent brat. He goes from a life of debauchery through a transformation to a noble person ready to fight for the honor of his father the king. The scenes with Prince Hal and his father are beautifully accomplished. James Carpenter (popular local actor who has played in every major regional company in the Bay Area) gives a stylish performance as King Henry IV. He is vigorous and he delivers the meaning of the verse with clarity. Even when the King is in a weakened condition at the end, his acting is superb.

Graham Shiels (The Moliere Comedies at the Mark Taper, Showboat with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) plays Hotspur to the hilt. He is hotheaded and overconfident in his abilities to take the crown away from Henry. He bluffs and screams as the baldheaded person who looks like he could be part of the Godfather saga. Liam Vincent (recently in Noises Off and Five Flights) plays two roles. He is very good as Ned Poins, as he swaggers about the stage in very theatrical poses, and then becomes a somewhat fey Douglas in the dueling scene with Prince Hal. He strikes of the John Barrymore school of acting in the sword fights.

Hector Correa (worked with nearly every major regional theatre company) gives a good account of himself as the Earl of Northumberland. Mr. Correa has a true Shakespearean voice that is clear as a bell. The nobles on both sides include Warren David Keith, who is real hoot as the egocentric Owen Glendower, a typical Welsh booster. Ron Campbell as the Earl of Worchester and Luis Oropeza as the Archbishop of York are very good in their roles.

The female roles in this production are less showy. Joan Mankin (San Francisco Mime Troupe) is outstanding as Mistress Quickly. She is imaginative and very lewd as the mistress of the tavern. Stacy Ross is first-rate as Hotspur's loving wife and articulate widow. Lauren English is good as Princess Joan of Lancaster, who appears in a few scenes. She has the Bard's beat down fine in her speeches. The rest of cast is very good in small roles.

Henry IV plays through August 1 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheatre, Gateway exit from Highway 24 between Berkeley and Orinda. For tickets call 510-548-9666 or visit

Their next production is Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest which opens on August 14th.

Photo: Jay Yamada

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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