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Ignoble Fools

Chicago Shakespeare director Barbara Gaines emphasizes the blue-blooded brawl at the heart of Henry IV.

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Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

If there's a controversial moment in Barbara Gaines's sprightly five-hour-plus staging of the two parts of Henry IV, it's the way she plays the final confrontation between Prince Hal and Hotspur. The heir to the throne is on the ground, pinned under the sword of the rebel, but Hotspur's sense of honor forbids him from killing his prey so ignobly. But Hal learned to fight Eastcheap style--down and dirty. Given this reprieve, he jumps on Hotspur's back, clawing at his eyes, and brings him down like a lion would a wounded gazelle.

Hardly the sort of nobility you'd expect from the future Henry V, who eventually delivers the ringing "band of brothers" speech before the battle of Agincourt. But it's exactly what you'd expect from the callow, self-serving youth who attains power but not compassion or wisdom in the Henry IV plays. Overall Gaines's Chicago Shakespeare Theater production (which travels to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon after this run) isn't revolutionary. But it does maintain an appealing balance between its two main attractions: young Henry, an operator waiting for destiny to give him his largely unearned due, and Falstaff, the merrily self-aware knave of natural instinct.

Falstaff's real flaw isn't his excessive appetite for sack, capons, and wenches, however. It's his excessive love for Hal, which is unrequited--the prince's feelings toward the old knight are summed up early in Part 1: "Were't not for laughing, I should pity him." Early in Part 2 Falstaff says, "I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men." Delighted to be the butt of Hal's pranks and wisecracks, he knows that as long as he can make people laugh, he's on firm ground. It's no wonder he dismisses Hal's younger brother, John of Lancaster, with "this same young sober-blooded boy doth not love me, nor a man cannot make him laugh."

This production's opening moment recalls the finale of Gaines's staging of Richard II almost five years ago, when the recently crowned Henry IV stood amid torrents of blood cascading from the ceiling. In Henry IV, Part 1, as the conniving noble who caused Richard's death and usurped his throne is tossing restlessly in bed, blood encircles the crown on the pillow beside him. His son Hal, too, is tormented by his knowledge of the dark side of power. His soliloquy in Part 1 about his low-life companions clearly shows that, despite his wild ways, he's every inch his father's son in manipulation, steely determination, and bad temper. Hal speaks with anguish of the double life he's leading--and he's full of loathing for those "base" friends who've taught him the very tricks that will save his life in his battle with Hotspur, which in turn assures his return to most-favored-son status with his father.

Greg Vinkler's inventive, soulful, multifaceted turn as Falstaff is the best reason to see this show: his take is light on bombast and heavy on sly showmanship, a definite contrast to the appropriately cartoonish Sir John he played in Chicago Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor a couple of years ago. Among the other arresting performances are Jeffrey Carlson's watchful Hal, with his barely concealed vicious streak, and David Lively's short-fused Henry IV--an impressive characterization given that the monarch is one of the least interesting characters. John Douglas Thompson as Hotspur and Kate Fry as his wife have an appealing chemistry, sparring convincingly in playful verbal and physical battles. Since this is a Chicago Shakespeare show, which means lots of stage fog and flash powder, the Merlin-like Welsh rebel Glendower (John Reeger) gets to show off some sorcery. And Lusia Strus, with her foghorn voice and Dickensian joie de vivre, is a comic wonder as Mistress Quickly.

There's little fat in either part: Gaines has made cuts in both plays (though Part 2 remains less interesting than Part 1 by its nature). Seeing the two together is undeniably powerful, and a 40-minute dinner break between shows provides a rest. The heart of the story is a turf war between blue-blooded gangsters--a point Gaines drives home with chilling bluntness in the royal faction's matter-of-fact onstage execution of the rebellious Archbishop of York in Part 2. There's no particular honor among the rebels either: Hotspur's father, the Earl of Northumberland, calls in sick for the battle where his son is later slain and betrays his comrades again in Part 2.

No one is more coldhearted than Hal, however, when at the end, as the newly crowned king, he renounces his old friend. In Part 1 Falstaff warns his young companion, "Banish plump Jack and banish all the world." He's right: though Hal is on top by the close of Henry IV, he fails to achieve peace, within his realm or outside it, in Henry V. Falstaff, on the other hand, dies peacefully in bed--and it's still his wit that makes Henry IV vital today.

When: Through 6/18: Wed 11 AM, Fri 5:45 PM, Sat 4 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand

Price: $95 both shows (mandatory), $19 boxed dinner (optional)

Info: 312-595-5600

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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