Such a Knight | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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FALSTAFF

Oak Park Festival Theatre

"Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." Summon plump Jack, and summon all the world. In the Henry IV plays Shakespeare did both: he imagined the foul-mouthed, huge-hearted, double-talking "mountain of mummy" Sir John Falstaff as a boozing, bragging liege companion to Prince Hal (the future Henry V). Then, like Prospero destroying his magic staff, Shakespeare dismissed the "huge hill of flesh" from his chronicle: Falstaff's old pal the new king banishes him from his court--exactly as he had threatened to all along.

Despite the abrupt eviction, Falstaff had won his author's heart. Brimming with resourcefulness, shamelessness, and an immense appetite, the rogue took over a dutiful chronicle play and earned a place outside history (one reason popular demand forced Shakespeare to bring Falstaff back in the formulaic but crowd-pleasing The Merry Wives of Windsor).

Shakespeare packed other fully fleshed lives into the Henry IV plays and the 14 busy years--1399 to 1413 --they depict: the haunted title monarch, elaborately guilt ridden about having usurped Richard II's throne and terrified that his maverick son will complete his kingdom's ruin; the splenetic rebel Hotspur, whose homicidal defense of his honor shames Hal into testing his own warrior valor; and Hal, who, having fled his father's predatory court, seems almost schizophrenically skillful at playing both the monumental rakehell at the Boar's-Head Tavern and the valiant defender of his father's throne. (Falstaff may be a delightful diversion, but Hal knows the rollick must come to an end: "If all the year were playing holidays / To sport would be as tedious as to work".)

Of course no one is more fleshed out than Falstaff. Shakespeare lifted him from an old play called The Famous Victories of Henry V and enlarged the randy old knight into an archetypal survivor of hard times, who, when others prate of honor and country, affectionately pats his belly and lunges for his sack. We love Falstaff precisely because we know him so well; even a stern moralist such as Samuel Johnson could write: "Falstaff, unimitated, inimitable Falstaff, how shall I describe thee! Thou compound of sense and vice; of sense which may be admired . . . of vice which may be despised, but hardly detested."

Hardly. The anomaly of Falstaff is that his interior remained that of a covetous little boy--impetuous, selfish, mendacious, incapable of believing in any abstraction beyond the next meal or drink. We all wish we could get away with as much and for as long as he did. Yet Falstaff can be a father figure for Hal--better Falstaff's earthy immediacy than Henry IV's tortured paranoia. You even feel Falstaff's influence in Henry V when, on the eve of Agincourt, the king mingles with his soldiers and shows he cares as much for their consciences as for his own.

This summer's "Shakespeare in the park" from the Oak Park Festival Theatre is director Tom Mula's adaptation of the Henry IV plays. It's simply called Falstaff: here the Boar's- Head Tavern carries more dramatic weight than the palace at Westminster. Accordingly, Hal's practical joke on Falstaff--after Falstaff and his henchmen rob some pilgrims, Hal robs Falstaff and then exposes the knight as a brazen liar--receives as much stage time as the battle of Shrewsbury. Rightly so--the battle of Shrewsbury belongs to historians, but the trickery at Gadshill is every audience's delight.

Mula's open-air production is solid and consistently entertaining, nicely enhanced by Robert Neuhaus's period music and Tom Fleming's supple lighting. It never scales any heights (it doesn't aim for, or achieve, the big laughs that shake an audience), but it's quite moving in the quieter moments--when Falstaff says goodbye to his adoring Doll Tearsheet or when he and two other aging cronies idly gild their fading memories of a flaming youth.

This emphasis on the domestic over the epic makes sense given Falstaff's Falstaff. Michael W. Nash seems more tentative than outrageous, more an eager-to-please 15th- century Santa Claus than the unpredictable life force who overwhelms everyone around him. But Nash is wonderfully persuasive at showing Falstaff "out of compass," in decline and suddenly life-size, his great stomach no longer a tribute to excess but an unwanted relic of happier days. (I admit I miss James O'Reilly most when I see anyone else do Falstaff--as does Mula, who dedicates his staging to the late, beloved actor.)

Jeffrey Hutchinson ably inhabits the calculating monarch-in-training--his Prince Hal eagerly gobbles up experience but seldom shows gratitude for the lessons. Yet Hal can suddenly choke on his accumulated guilt, as in his deathbed reconciliation with his father who's played with dignified despair by William J. Norris--a classic case of imposter's remorse. Falstaff heroically ends with the dead Falstaff and Henry IV bathed in lights and flanking the enthroned new monarch, but the production doesn't really illustrate the tug-of-war for Hal's heart, perhaps because--like the Goodman and the Body Politic's compressed versions of Henry IV--it has too much ground to cover in two and a half hours.

The cast give well-honed performances, marred only by inconsistent accents: Matt DeCaro plays England's chief justice, a fearless civil servant who, while impartially enforcing the laws of the land, jailed even the Prince of Wales; and an eloquently bellicose Seth Jacobs plays the firebrand Hotspur. The most cunning comedy is in Greg Vinkler's portrayal of the contentedly doddering Justice Shallow. Good women's roles are sparse, but Catherine Martineau is excellent as both Hotspur's vigilant wife and Falstaff's tender whore, and Jennifer Halliday is a delightfully no-nonsense, tough-loving Mistress Quickly.

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

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