Finally, a Falstaff we can get behind. Shakespeare’s drunken, lovable rogue-of-a-certain-age is something of a star vehicle in the historical drama Henry IV, giving center stage to the greying headliner still in his (or her) prime. It’s also a role that tends to bring out the scenery-chewing, with many playing it rather too large to the lowest common denominator (at least the lowest you get in a theater). But if most break a few rules (and maybe some wind), unless you love bawdy for bawdy’s sake, they don’t often move the needle.
Then along comes Edward Gero in Folger’s production of 1 Henry IV (★★★★☆) and it’s as if the character has been written anew.
It’s not that he does anything revolutionary, it’s more that he simply recalibrates the focus. Instead of perfecting the world-weary buffoonery, he looks for the middle-aged man you might actually know: a spiritually defeated, morally disheveled sometimes alpha. He may rant and play the clown, but in this characterization, Falstaff’s wit, introspection and impatience suggest a quiet current of gravitas tempered only by a survivor’s instinct. By the time he confronts his horror of “honor,” it has become a quietly magnificent unmasking. This is Falstaff the ex-contender, a man who has taken cover from a dangerous and chaotic world. It’s an inner landscape that resonates as much today as it would have in the rough and tumble of Shakespeare’s era.
If Gero is the reason to see this production, a close second is Tyler Fauntleroy as Hotspur, the rebel leader threatening Henry IV’s reign. With a fair portion of the play centering around Hotspur’s motivations and machinations as he prepares to challenge the king, there is enough of the kind of tense outrage that would get seriously tedious in the wrong hands. But Fauntleroy is one of those few actors who can truly find their way into Shakespeare; a player who not only masters the language but boldly, bravely takes their character. There may be a few uneven moments here and there, but Fauntleroy’s Hotspur is seriously, gratifyingly convincing.
Another stand-out is Avery Whitted as Henry’s son, Prince Hal, slumming it with Falstaff until life as future king catches up with him. Whitted, in truth, needs work on his delivery — he is fluid, but not yet musical in his Shakespeare. But what absolutely grabs here is his ability to exude an immensity of feeling with incredible subtlety. As his father ruthlessly dresses him down, Whitted’s Hal couldn’t look more abject, his eyes veritable pools of young man’s angst — and yet he is almost motionless, his face immovable. This is priceless stuff and riveting theater. Indeed, a subtle dose more would be better: this simmering intensity should reveal itself even when he is at play.
In smaller roles, Maribel Martinez offers a convincing warmth and long-suffering good humor to her Lady Percy, while Sam Midwood plays it appropriately loud and large in his battle scenes as Douglas. Bringing some convincing accents and plenty of versatility, U. Jonathan Toppo is an effective Northumberland and Glendower. Anchoring the production, Naomi Jacobson gives her Worcester an earnest edge, while Peter Crook’s King Henry IV, if slightly over-played, interestingly suggests a difficult man. Finally, Kate Eastwood Ellis (as various characters) seems rather wasted in her small roles, but has plenty of fun.
As for the production itself, director Rosa Joshi offers a powerfully good sense of pacing and keeps the contemporary setting vibrant with some understated and carefully placed neon lights and electro music. She also makes imaginative and energetic use of the Folger space, especially in the battle scenes. Her choice to use some ensemble dance to suggest engaging armies could be worse, even if it argues a bit with the emotional realism.
As always, save for some distractingly sexist painted-on leggings, there is the Folger’s usual inclusiveness and the sense that the actors have forged a happy bond both on and off the stage. This is, however, Gero’s night and anyone who thinks they know Falstaff, needs to meet his.
1 Henry IV runs to October 13 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street, SE. Tickets are $42 to $85. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.