The theme of a wayward, rebellious son and an authoritarian father is timeless, and resonates today as richly as it must have when first produced more than 400 years ago.That the father here is a king, and the son a prince, raises the stakes enormously. Playwright William Shakespeare has in addition created a comic character, Sir John Falstaff, who is a buffoon and a coward, but has such a zest for life that he has become an audience favorite. The result is that the popularity of Henry IV, Part I began early and continues even today.
The role of Falstaff is a choice one, as he is a drinking companion to Prince Hal, and has a number of monologues, where his self-aggrandizing schemes are hatched, for Falstaff is a highwayman as well as a toper. David Rainey plays him to a fare-thee-well, capturing his exuberance, barroom charm, and rich appetite for chicanery. And did I sense some channeling of the late Bert Lahr in the performance? If so, all to the good. Rainey is delightful and compelling in the role.
Prince Hal is portrayed by David Huynh, whose good looks and lithe physique fit the heroic mold, and whose quicksilver acting marks him as an actor of the first order. He amuses us with a chameleon-like change of expression as he inflicts pranks on Falstaff, and then rises to the occasion when war calls for heroism. Hal has lowered himself to consort with tavern buddies and wenches, but makes his transformation into obedient son and stalwart warrior plausible.
The antagonist to King Henry is Hotspur, who has a grievance against the king, and is portrayed by Leraldo Anzaldua, who could not be better. Anzaldua has mastered the Shakespeare's cadence, so the words burst out with the poetry intact, and his every gesture matches the meaning perfectly. It is a fascinating, powerful performance, even memorable, so anchored in reality and truth as to be riveting.
Director Jack Young has found the rhythm and power of the play, and these strong performances carry the production triumphantly on talented shoulders.
King Henry is played by Mirron Willis, who has very extensive Shakespearean credentials, but is a bit of a disappointment. He delivers bombast instead of inner authority, and moves too much, thrashing about the stage, when holding his ground would be more powerful. He was brilliant as Malcolm X this year in the Ensemble Theater's production of The Meeting, and it may be that Willis is better suited for characters with a theatrical flair than for heads that wear the crown.
Director Young bears some responsibility for Willis's interpretation, of course.
Young might also consider urging Willis to give up his habit of consistently, very consistently, tilting his head all the way back, as though searching for friends in the upper balcony. It is strange, indeed, and Willis would do well to correct it, even in this production, though bad habits die hard.
Houston veteran Rutherford Cravens is good as the Earl of Worcester, Hotspur's uncle, who shares the grievance, and Cravens finds the authority to command when necessary. Elissa Levitt as Lady Mortimer sings beautifully, and creates a warm and endearing character in her brief cameo role before the battle. Amelia Fischer as Mistress Quickly brings charm to this party, and is beautiful, captivating, and desirable. Kiara Feliciano as Hotspur's wife is beautiful, and wears clothes well, so emotional warmth may be too much to expect.
The extensive battle scenes in Act Two are excellent, exciting and credible, no surprise, as teaching stage combat is one of Young's responsibilities at UH. This play has a development, and an arc, that are dramatically satisfying, and Young has found its action, its heart, and perhaps its soul. He, UH, and this remarkable cast are to be commended. The verdict:
Theatrical excitement, raw emotional power, rich humor and remarkable acting fuse together to make this a triumphant production. It is memorable, must-see theater, and a perfect introduction to the brilliance of playwright William Shakespeare. Henry IV, Part I continues at 8:30 p.m. on August 6, 8 and 10, and is performed in repertory with The Two Gentlemen of Verona, also at 8:30 p.m., on August 3, 5, 7 and 9, from the University of Houston, Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive, 281-373-3386, houstonfestivalscompany.com.