Wartime Zeroes

The Folger Theatre is a brilliant location for 'Henry IV,' and these weeks before the elections, the perfect timing

You would hardly need to fall into the ”news junkie” category to be aware of how ugly the presidential campaign has gotten. Even a recent Saturday Night Live appearance by GOP vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin caused reader boards on some blogs to light up with comments that seemed exceptionally brutal given their catalyst.

Disagreeing with someone’s policy stances or fitness to serve in office is one thing, using a rap song involving two Eskimos and someone dressed as a moose as an opportunity to loose an angry diatribe (including a c-word that was not ”caribou”) seems another. Frankly, the argument could be made that the Inuit citizens of Alaska have the bigger gripe in this particular situation.

Jolly and fat: Williams
Jolly and fat: Williams

But politics are ugly and, if William Shakespeare is to be believed, they always have been. And, if Henry IV, Part I is to be believed, politics have also always offered the opportunity for a couple of laughs.

Sitting as it does in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the Folger Theatre is a brilliant location for a production of Henry IV, and these weeks before the elections, the perfect timing. While it won’t help the undecided make their final choice, the play does provide an exceptional way to spend that deliberation time. This is a strong production of one of the Bard’s more complicated and truly funny plays.

King Henry IV (Rick Foucheux) has taken the throne after the successful overthrow of Richard II but has not been welcomed into power as he had expected. A revolution against Henry’s reign is brewing and his son Hal, Prince of Wales (Tom Story), is lazy, unmotivated and would far rather spend his time drinking and carousing with his friends than take true responsibility. The prince is such a public embarrassment that the elder Henry wishes in front of several members of his family that the soldier Hotspur (David Graham Jones) were his son instead of Hal.

Ironically, Hotspur is anxious to have the simmering rebellion against Henry erupt into full-blown war. Hotspur and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, and uncle, the Earl of Worcester, all believe that they’ve been mistreated by Henry IV and want him out. This, despite the fact that these men were responsible for bringing Henry IV to power in the first place.

Are you seeing any contemporary parallels here? What if mention were made of the absence of leadership when the battle finally erupts or the mismanagement of funds for the soldiers?

Anything?

Henry IV, Part I is where audiences are introduced to the wonderfully drawn comic character Sir John Falstaff. Classical theater’s favorite jolly fat man, Falstaff is Prince Hal’s closest friend and most unreliable ally. A liar and a coward, he is brought wonderfully and vividly to life by Delaney Williams in one of the Folger production’s most successful bits of casting.

Williams manages his Falstaff in such a way that he is neither fully buffoon nor deceitful savant, giving the man a warm and genuine humanity which makes him as much a companion to the audience as he is to Hal.

Speaking of Hal, Story is surprisingly agile as the wayward prince. This is a role that requires a sizeable leap for any actor — moving convincingly from barroom slacker to battlefield warrior. Story makes the transition without sacrificing Hal’s good-natured boyishness. His Hal becomes the underdog we cheer for thanks to the really intelligent choices the actor is making on stage.

HENRY IV, PART I
starstarstarstar
To Nov. 16
Folger Theatre
201 E. Capitol St. SE
$34-$55
202-544-7077
www.folger.edu

Mention must also be made of the popular Rick Foucheux in the title role. Making the most of the comparatively short time that King Henry is on stage, Foucheux plays the monarch with a certain desperation. We see a man struggling to hold onto the power he’s gained while all the time realizing how fragile the ground on which he’s standing truly is.

The standout in this production, however, is Graham Jones as the young upstart Hotspur. Arrogant and short tempered, ill-behaved and completely unable to grasp the value of diplomacy, he presents Hotspur as an arrogant rock star. Jones doesn’t cross the stage as much as struts about it. It’s a portrayal that is hard edged, sexy and it positively works, particularly as a counterpoint to Story’s Hal.

The Folger has done a fine job bringing the political scheming, backroom double dealing and drunken horseplay of Henry IV, Part I to the stage. Even better, they’re mounting their play just down the street from where the real drama is taking place.

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