It’s a play about pivotal moments. Again and again, in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part I,” characters in tough spots make crucial decisions that sever ties, betray allies and incite violence. There’s no righteous justice or moral high ground here, just power grabs, greed, hot-headedness and deceit. In other words, it’s politics as usual.
At the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane, director Burton Tedesco delivers a production of “Henry IV, Part I” that wallows in the muddy depths of the play’s amorality, charging into the breach with very little hand-wringing or second-guessing about the consequences.
The second installment in Shakespeare’s four-play history of England’s transition out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, this production of “Henry IV, Part I” successfully leans into the thrills of political drama while snowballing toward a violent conclusion and uneasy ending that sets the stage for what’s to come.
Not so noble heir
Following the coup in “Richard II” that sees Henry Bolingbroke usurp the throne and crown himself King Henry IV, Shakespeare’s sequel opens with the new monarch lamenting civil unrest as fighting breaks out along the borders of Wales and Scotland. But it’s the king’s son, the future Henry V, who’s the real protagonist of “Henry IV, Part I.”
The royal heir shows very little noble bearing, preferring to spend time in the company of drunkards and thieves, much to the chagrin of his father.
However, Prince Harry, who knows a thing or two about pivotal moments, lets slip to the audience his true intentions: When the time is right, he’ll “imitate the sun…by breaking through the foul and ugly mists” of his misdeeds, proving to his father and all the rest that he’s a worthy successor after all, a calculated move made more impressive by the leap from rags to royalty.
Harry is the hub of a three-spoked storyline. There’s his association with the gluttonous Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, and a confederacy of petty crooks; then there’s the father-son stuff, as the king laments the failings of the son who is secretly scheming to win his favor; and finally the rival Hotspur, a former ally of the king who now leads a rebellion that must be stamped out to maintain the power of the throne.
In this production, the relationship between the prince and Falstaff transcends the three-point plot to take center stage, due in no small part to a pair of dynamite performances from Jake Bartush as Harry and Mike Harkins as Falstaff. From the moment we meet them, waking up crabby and hungover after a night of debauchery, the chemistry between the pair lights up the stage.
The lean and wiry Bartush embodies the two-sided nature of the prince, giving a dark edge to the comic shenanigans, as he wavers between true fondness and open disdain for his boon companion.
Harkins, suitably fat and grizzled in the role of Falstaff, is equally duplicitous as the loyal pal who, in another major pivotal moment, has no reservations about abandoning any concept of honor as he tries to claim the prince’s glory as his own.
The pair of actors deliver performances both big and subtle, commanding the audience’s attention and wielding the play’s poetry like a graceful knight with a dangerous sword.
The downside to this strength of the production is that it overshadows the other two spokes of the story. As the king, Silas Cooper plays his role with a noble detachment that often comes across as flat and one-dimensional, pushing the play’s essential father-son drama to the back burner.
Likewise, Brittany N. Williams plays Hotspur with a superficial anger that doesn’t quite capture the passion of the character’s indignation, making a heated rivalry more of a lukewarm plot device. There is some dramatic redemption in a face-off between the rebels and the royals when Hotspur’s uncle, the Earl of Worcester, played by Monica R. Harris, confronts the king with spitting-mad fervor, finally inciting an equally vehement reaction from the king in another of the play’s pivotal points.
The cast is rounded out by a strong assemblage of supporting players that suitably swell the play’s progress, all capable performers often tackling multiple roles. The setting by Joan Long is effectively minimalistic, and the costumes by Suellen da Costa Coelho approximate the period of the piece.
While contemporary Shakespeare productions often get gussied up with modern dressings (like last year’s Miami Vice-inspired “Comedy of Errors” or the 2019 WWII-era “Much Ado About Nothing”), director Tedesco wisely allows the strength of this story to stand on its own.
In the play’s final moments, with the crown resting on a heavy head, spectators are left with a reminder that even in victory, history rages onward, leaving violence and corruption both in its wake and on the horizon, as audiences wait for the next pivotal moment that will shape the future landscape of politics and power.
“Henry IV, Part I”
WHEN: Through July 30
WHERE: Lupin Theater, Tulane University
TICKETS: $40 (discounts for students, seniors, and theater professionals)
INFO: (504) 865-5105 or NewOrleansShakespeare.org