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The costume plot for PlayMakers Repertory Company's The Making of a King: Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2) and Henry V at the Paul Green Theatre, Chapel Hill attempts, with its mixture of the contemporary and the archaic, a kind of timelessness. Like this overall design, the production itself is largely, but not wholly, successful.
Many of Jennifer Caprio's costumes work beautifully: Denim trousers, a sort of hooded sweater for Prince Hal, suggestions of doublet and armor for the battles. But the prevalence of dyed leather long-coats, or dusters, for the knights tend to evoke a Sergio Leone Western while the regal burgundy model for first, King Henry IV and later, his son, may, as my companion remarked, remind you less of royalty than of "a pimp in The Matrix." As co-directed by PRC artistic director Joseph Haj and Mike Donahue, The Making of a King similarly contains much that is splendid and apt, coupled with the questionable, from emphasis to casting.
Combining the three Henry plays provides a strong narrative arc depicting the development of Hal from roistering boy to victorious warrior-king. On the other hand, not integrating at least part of Richard II into the staging makes it tough going for anyone who doesn't know the precise nature of Henry Bollingbroke's treachery against the crown and how his ascent to King was made possible only by deposing Richard — how the guilt he carries, and his own sense of royal illegitimacy are central to understanding his character. And, as pleasant as it is to see a good production of Henry V, which this one largely is, its inclusion on the program mandated cutting Henry IV, Part 2 by half. While some scholars might regard that as a gain, it greatly diminishes the role of Hal's surrogate father, Sir John Falstaff (not to mention poor Doll Tearsheet, reduced here to, effectively, a walk-on.)
While I've never been persuaded by Orson Welles' definition of the old, fat knight as "Shakespeare's good, pure man… the most completely good man in all drama," and while it is true that Falstaff's is a role of such force and audience goodwill he can nearly overwhelm the plays, I'm not sure that less of him is a good thing — especially when Prince Hal is in some ways one of the least explicable of major Shakespearean roles. It takes skill bordering on genius (which Welles himself exhibited in his technically flawed but magnificent 1965 movie adaptation Chimes at Midnight) to suggest a reason for his seeming capriciousness. For all the gifts Shawn Fagan brings to his interpretation of the King-to-be (and they are considerable) that duplicitous overlay — that essential foreshadowing of his real feelings and of ultimate rejection of adopted father for actual progenitor — is sketchy at best. We do sense it, in the coolness of Hal's famous reply to Falstaff's "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" ("I do. I will.") but it's undercut by his immediate, and unironic, "Just kidding!" grin and ingratiating burst of laughter.
By contrast, in Michael Winters' magisterial performance, Falstaff's falsehoods fall from his lips with no forethought whatsoever. For Winters, the boastful old jester's exaggerations, despite his prevarications, have no guile or cunning; he exists wholly in the moment. In his inability to think in calculating terms, as Hal does, Winters' Falstaff is indeed Welles' ideal: "His goodness is like bread, like wine." Yet he does not make us drunk on it. Falstaff is a kind of test for him, and Winters passes it easily. (He is also a superlative Chorus in Henry V.) Winters never does too much with the role, or too little. He is so open and optimistic (there's a touch of Oliver Hardy in some of his inflections) that, in consequence, Falstaff's eventual banishment on the ascension of Hal to the throne — one of the most moving moments in world theatre — is quietly shattering.
The casting of Jeffrey Blair Cornell as Henry IV is more troubling. He is more effective as a comedian than a tragedian, and makes a better Pistol than King, although a neat outcome of this double casting is that he gets to announce his own death. Likewise, and despite a very effective death-scene, the "Hotspur" of Cody Nickell tends to one, ranting note while his Fluellen in Henry V is richly comic. Many of the smaller parts are acted indifferently, but Nathaniel P. Claridad is a Nym to treasure and J. Alphonse Nicholson is a very fine Michael Williams. Kelsey Didion makes beautiful delineation between her ardent, despairing Lady Percy and her perplexed Katherine of Valois (despite an atrocious wig); Kathryn Hunter-Williams is a lustily entrancing Mistress Quickly; Katie Paxton has a lovely scene performing a plaintive Welsh lay to a guitar and offering what comfort she can to Lady Percy; and Tania Chelnov is a fine, funny Alice.
Patrick McHugh does quite well by Poins in Henry IV, but his casting as Scroop in Henry V may cause some audience confusion. Ray Dooley is, as always, splendid in his many roles, especially as, first, the Earl of Worchester and, later, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he makes the lawyerly intricacies of the Salic Law as clear as mud and as dizzying as all those "Begats" in Genesis. If there is such a thing as rhetorical naturalism, Dooley has it; and his physical angularity lends dignity and presence to the role.
Mark Lewis' original music is inventive and effective, only once (toward the end of Henry IV, Part 1) becoming obtrusive. Jennifer Tipton's lighting designs carry the plays along at a brisk and affecting clip, and her use of light and shadow from a high vantage in the "Chimes at midnight" scene is surpassing lovely. Jan Chambers' striking scenic design is dominated above by a naked metal structure encompassing stairs, catwalk bridges and platforms; below, by four massive, rotating doors; and centrally, by an inviting, open space where much of the action outside the King's court is performed. As in the Shakespeare texts themselves, the delineation between Court and public space is stark: A single, cold throne indicates the former, while a chandelier can descend and a warmly battered wooden table and benches be brought on to represent the Boars-Head Tavern.
The direction by Haj and Donahue is swift, transporting us through the endurance test of the three plays with remarkable agility yet knowing when to stop for savor. There are superb touches throughout, as when Kate Percy repeatedly punches her recalcitrant husband in the back, making Hotspur's subsequent dubbing of her as "gentle Kate" especially funny. But I found the foppish attitudes of the French court tiresome, as I did Olivier's caricatures in his film of Henry V (I much prefer Kenneth Brannagh's handling of Paul Scofield in his version) and I was appalled when, in decreeing Bardolph's death sentence for thievery, this King — in a scene that goes on and on in an unconscionably heartless display of gruesomeness — strangles his old comrade.
Finally, is it necessary to alter not merely Shakespeare but history itself in having a female actor playing Montjoy referred to as "her"? The gender-blind casting is no crime in itself, but that grammatical alteration is an obscenity.
The Making of a King runs through March 4. For details, see the sidebar.