It's a monumental subject, but then Lincoln Center Theater's production of "Henry IV" is monumental theater, a stirring adaptation of two of Shakespeare's history plays featuring one of his most popular characters, that bibulous, bellowing, carnal creature called Falstaff.
Director Jack O'Brien has had the audacity to think big in this mammoth, nearly four-hour stitching together of Parts 1 and 2 of "Henry IV." What's more, O'Brien, a talented cast and an innovative design team have the ability to pull it off.
And at the center of their heroic efforts is Kevin Kline, giving what most likely will end up as the best performance of the season. As Falstaff, the actor, virtually unrecognizable encased in tufts of white hair and a large body suit, is the epitome of excess.
His Falstaff is not merely comic (and Kline gets every laugh out of the man's foibles) but a highly complex individual, often brutish and sentimental at the same time. It's such a complete, nuanced characterization that you feel you are being introduced to this well-known fellow for the first time.
"Henry IV" may be a history play but it is a very personal play as well, dealing with the triangular relationship between Falstaff, mentor to the dissolute Prince Hal, and Hal's prickly, almost combative dealings with his real father, the drama's title character.
The actors completing this three-sided equation are Michael Hayden as Hal and Richard Easton, who plays the guilt-ridden monarch. Both are superb - Hayden capturing the boyish immaturity of a lad destined to be king and Easton achingly real as the king who despairs not only for his son but for the future of his country. Watch his amazing deathbed scene.
What all three performers share is an affinity with Shakespeare's verse. They have the technique to negotiate the play's more heroic passages, lines recited in the full heat of battle or during the emotional, familial confrontations that stud the play.
Those battles, primarily with forces led by the aptly named rebel, Hotspur, are staged with gusto. O'Brien has the opposing armies swooping across the vast stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater and engaging in fierce, hand-to-hand combat. Designer Ralph Funicello's massive wooden settings, large crisscrosses of planks, form an appropriate background to all the carnage.
Hotspur, played by Ethan Hawke, is a worthy if hyperkinetic opponent for Prince Hal. Hawke has the emotion if not the language down pat for this volatile young man but it doesn't severely hamper the contest between the two would-be kings.
One of the strengths of O'Brien's production is the parade of fine actors in even the smallest of parts. Audra McDonald makes an impassioned Lady Percy, Hotspur's wife. And Dana lvey does expert double duty, first as Mistress Quickly and then as Lady Northumberland. Among the villains, Byron Jennings excels as Hotspur's father.
Kline isn't the only master of comedy. Jeff Weiss is an idiosyncratic yet funny Justice Shallow and gets laughs. So does Tom Bloom as Justice Silence. Falstaff’s cohorts, portrayed by Stephen DeRosa, David Manis and Ty Jones, offer strong, distinct support.
A word should be said about the adaptation, done by Dakin Matthews, who also plays both the loyal Chief Justice Warwick and the rebel Owen Glendower. Matthews, a veteran dramaturge for San Diego's Globe Theater, hasn't changed any of Shakespeare's lines. He has cut carefully, though, leaving much of "Henry IV, Part 2" out of the proceedings. Surprisingly, it doesn't harm the evening.
There are many startling visuals in this "Henry IV." The one that lingers longest occurs in the last moments of the play. Despite the epic sweep of what has gone before, what we see is very human and absolutely heartbreaking. It's the newly crowned king, now Henry V, alone in a spotlight. And hovering in the shadows is his surrogate father, Falstaff, now banished but aware that his one-time, boisterous good friend has grown up and become a man.
A miracle is taking place eight times a week at the corner of Amsterdam Ave, and 65th St.
Great Shakespeare is being performed.
Jack O'Brien's production of "Henry IV," with Kevin Kline giving the performance of his career as Falstaff, is miraculous because - unlike most Shakespeare productions here over the last few decades - it does not dumb down the material, for either the actors or the audience.
O'Brien understands that no space is too big for Shakespeare to fill. He uses the entire Vivian Beaumont, both height and depth, to present Shakespeare's great historical drama.
The production captures the sweep of the characters powerfully, projecting them both as historic personages and as human beings caught in totally comprehensible, intimate dilemmas.
Although it concerns issues of the legitimacy of power, the play is also a study of a young man, Prince Hal, struggling to conquer his youthful impulses and meet the demands of his people and his father.
Shakespeare wrote "Henry IV" in two parts. O'Brien uses an adaptation by Dakin Matthews (who also appears in the production) that combines elements from both parts, including the death of Henry IV, which leads to Prince Hal's assumption of the throne as Henry IV and his renunciation of his drinking buddy Falstaff.
Although the plays teem with wonderful characters, it has always been Falstaff who accounts for their appeal. He is, among many things, an embodiment of selfishness.
A few decades earlier, such a character might have appeared in a morality play as a figure to be reproached and rejected. In Shakespeare, his abundant vice is deliciously appealing. We share Hal's inability to resist him.
O'Brien has a wonderful hit of business when Hal renounces him - he puts his hand on Falstaffs gray hair, an almost helplessly affectionate gesture before the stern rebuke.
Kline, often given to overstatement, here is perfectly controlled. He never lets us forget that Falstaff is, after all, a Sir, not just a buffoon. The lordly air adds to the humanity.
As Hal, Michael Hayden manages the fiendishly difficult job of making us believe the transition from seeming delinquent to sovereign.
Ethan Hawke plays his rival, Hotspur, with splendid feistiness. He may not capture the elegance of the verse, but he conveys the character zestily.
As Henry IV, Richard Easton shows us the private frustrations of a man who questions the legitimacy of his power and is concerned about its continuance in his rebellious son. But he also shows us the public Henry as unquestionably magisterial.
Ralph Funicello's sets use the Beaumont space breathtakingly. Jess Goldstein's costumes, especially his sculptural outfit for Kline, convey the period elegantly. Brian MacDevitt's lighting bathes them in Old Master tones.
For years I have maintained that if New York could see one Shakespeare play done the way it should be done, it would remind us what the theater is supposed to be.
This is the one.
What a piece of work is Falstaff! And how wondrously does Kevin Kline play him!
If Ralph Richardson was the Falstaff of the 20th century, then Kline could well emerge as the Falstaff of the 21st. It is a performance hot with genius and monumental with history.
The adequate if occasionally rickety frame for this consummate portrait of Shakespeare's fat knight is the Lincoln Center Theater's staging of "Henry IV," which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.
Here Dakin Matthews has conflated Shakespeare's two history plays, "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two."
While the idea is vulgar - if Shakespeare had wanted to have written one play he would not have written two - it's been done quite adroitly, though in the course of its 3-hour, 40-minute running time, the arc of Shakespeare's dynamic is lost.
"Henry IV" is about the making of a prince, the dissolute Prince Hal, who is later to become the heroic Henry V. He's a prince tempered not just by battle and politics, but by a mix of public events and private peccadilloes.
Lincoln Center's version, by omitting a whole web of small details, reduces Shakespeare's vision - and the totality of rearrangement detracts from the whole.
With Ralph Funicello's splendidly versatile wooden-palace of a setting - all towers, walls, ramparts, ramps, steps, ladders - lit with telling chiaroscuro by Brian MacDevitt, Jack O'Brien's staging is swift, sure, no-nonsensical, but not especially imaginative.
Where the production falters most, however, is in the performances, which are a very mixed bag.
Michael Hayden's Prince Hal is impressive, but he literally lacks stature; he seems more like a prince's friend than a prince.
Richard Easton, looking like a harassed bank manager facing an audit, is both solid and stolid as the eponymous Henry IV, but Ethan Hawke is frankly awful in the key role of Hotspur, Harry Percy in an ill-favored, ill-spoken performance that only reaches a semblance of life in its death.
Dana Ivey strikes a neatly querulous note with her nimble Mistress Quickly, Genevieve Elam agreeablv proves an untraditionally nubile Doll Tearsheet, Audra McDonald simmers passionately as Lady Percy, and Byron Jennings is splendid as a pathologically violent Earl of Worcester.
And then there is the glory that is Kline's Falstaff, which overshadows all blemishes and then shines on the production like a melting sun.
This Falstaff is totally selfish, and Kline subtly stresses the ugly, casual cruelty beneath the braggadocio. He's human, lovable even, rapscallion, and all those wickedly glinting things we adore.
He is the good-natured clown who can steal with guiltless impunity, and cynically send feeble men to their deaths as "food for powder."
Every move, every gesture, every slight intonation seems a reflection of a perfectly natural but at the same time revelatory inner image caught for our time. And that's the way it is with Kline's Falstaff.
Candles shine most brightly when it's dark outside. In Jack O'Brien's glorious staging of ''Henry IV'' for Lincoln Center Theater, a wall of endless night girds the uneasy kingdom of the greatest of Shakespeare's history plays, and the air is fogged with a constant awareness of death.
Yet the figures who slink, strut and run among the shadows of this production, which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont, are radiant with life at its fullest. As portrayed by a cast led by Kevin Kline, in a watershed performance as Falstaff, and Michael Hayden, as a bracingly ambivalent Prince Hal, these warring citizens of medieval England know they're all ultimately headed for the ash heap. In the meantime, they're emitting enough sparks to create their own festival of light.
Telescoping the two separate and full-length ''Henry IV'' plays into one galloping entertainment, which weighs in at 3 hours and 45 minutes, this production is custom-built for speed and clarity. The liberties that Dakin Matthews, its adapter, has taken in rearranging and cutting are sure to nettle Shakespearean purists. Even those whose memories of the work extend only to college English class may feel disoriented when the tavern scenes from Parts I and II are melded into one.
Yet it's hard to quarrel with the resulting narrative vigor. And while some may quibble with the casting in a talent-stuffed ensemble that includes Ethan Hawke, Dana Ivey and Audra McDonald, no one should deny the vitality that brims from every performance. As paced by Mr. O'Brien (best known in New York for the musical ''Hairspray''), the show has an unbroken emotional immediacy that never stoops to grasp for contemporary relevance.
This means that this ''Henry IV'' is not tarted up to evoke the battlefields of Vietnam or the gulf war. The costumes by Jess Goldstein, replete with leather jerkins and velvet mantles, identify their wearers as belonging particularly to Shakespeare's world.
And while Americans of the 21st century are free to discover latter-day parallels with the career of a feckless playboy prince who grows up to follow his father in leading a nation, Mr. O'Brien and company never insist upon such correspondences. They have bigger things on their minds, which they render with both earthy specificity and universal resonance.
For all its tinkering with text, this ''Henry'' comes closer than any other I've seen in capturing the thematic scope of plays of which the critic Kenneth Tynan said, ''More than anything else in our drama they deserve the name of epic.'' While the clash of royal loyalists and rebels is enjoyably delivered with the expected swordplay and stage smoke, a sense of life's shortness and cruelty pervades the production in ways that go beyond the theater of war.
The design and the performances illuminate the mortal threads in Shakespeare's rich tapestry of public and private lives. Ralph Funicello's austere but remarkably mutable tiered set is a dusty shade of black, while Mark Bennett's music makes sure we hear the chimes at midnight from the beginning.
Brian MacDevitt's painterly lighting, somehow both diffuse and precise, suggests that escape from darkness is only provisional. The sensibility is established in the show's stunning opening images, when clusters of characters embodying the three principal plot strands are conjured into fleeting existence in clouds of light.
Yet if ''Henry IV'' laments the brevity and randomness of existence, as so much of Shakespeare does, it also revels in human tenacity, the comedy as well as the pathos in the urge to hold on to dear life. No Shakespearean character has combined both aspects as piquantly as Falstaff, the hard-drinking old rogue whose friendship with Hal, Prince of Wales, is the despair of King Henry IV (Richard Easton).
And so we come to the formidable Mr. Kline, whose career has ranged from the seriously classical (the title roles in ''Hamlet'' and ''Ivanov'') to the blissfully frivolous (''On the Twentieth Century,'' ''Pirates of Penzance''). Made up to resemble a threadbare Santa Claus with a blimp of a prosthetic belly and a snowy beard, Mr. Kline looks like the most traditional Falstaff imaginable.
The wonderful surprise is how he deviates from the conventions of bluster and braggadocio. Mr. Kline has never had more of a chance to make a meal of the scenery. Instead, he delivers a finely measured performance that matches the actor's infinite resourcefulness with that of the character he plays.
This Falstaff exudes weariness as well as craftiness. Getting this aching-jointed ''swoll'n parcel of dropsies'' to his feet requires major engineering. Nor does he expend undue energy in ho-ho-ho heartiness. He only rarely even raises his voice.
Mr. Kline presents a pragmatic master of the power games of daily life, and it doesn't take much effort for his Falstaff to trump anyone with a quick, logic-inverting turn of phrase. Whenever someone gets the better of him in argument, he looks for inspiration in the bottom of a tankard or flask. When he raises his head again, he knows just what to say. (The use Mr. Kline makes of Falstaff's sword as a drinking aid is one of those inspired organic bits of stage business that define character as they draw laughs.)
While happiest when horizontal, this Falstaff is not about to lie down into old age. You can sense his deliberate distance as he listens to the senile prattlings of his old companion Justice Shallow (Jeff Weiss, in a deliriously dotty turn). When this Falstaff musters the strength for a proper bellow, on the battlefield at Shrewsbury, his exclamation registers as watchwords for both character and play: ''Give me LIFE.''
The oft-quoted cynical speeches on the suicidal nature of heroism and the saving graces of alcohol are persuasive, amusing and slightly chilling. Falstaff knows the price of staying alive in a brutal universe. His acceptance of this is very funny, as usual, but also sobering.
This Falstaff is not the all-dominating life force that the scholar Harold Bloom has made of the character. And while Falstaff may pander to those around him, Mr. Kline never panders to his audience. That he and Mr. O'Brien do not allow Falstaff to run away with the production is much to their credit.
It helps, of course, to have Mr. Hayden and Mr. Easton as counterweights. Mr. Easton, who won a Tony for Mr. O'Brien's production of Tom Stoppard's ''Invention of Love,'' creates a Henry IV who is on his own terms as much of a pragmatist as Falstaff. You can sense ''the king of smiles'' who stole the crown from Richard II.
The difference, Mr. Easton makes clear, is that unlike Falstaff, Henry is prey to pangs of conscience and regret that sour his disposition and corrode his health. In the chart of anatomical tempers, he's the spleen to Mr. Kline's phlegm.
Mr. Hayden's Hal does wonders in finding an emotional continuum as his character shuttles between his kingly father and Falstaff, the sybaritic father figure. (Mr. Matthews, who also appears as an accomplished actor here, has rearranged scenes so the parallels are made more explicit.)
Although Hal can hold his own in the hurlyburly of the Eastcheap tavern, he never seems entirely comfortable there. His low-life pals may put this down to a royal upbringing. But you can sense the slightly confused detachment of a youth on the edge of adulthood, always appraising others and himself.
Mr. Hayden brings a shivery hint of steel -- which anticipates the play's hauntingly staged (and somewhat revised) ending -- to the early scene in which Falstaff and Hal take turns acting out an interview between the prince and his father. Like Falstaff, this Hal is a survivor and the one person, perhaps, who can beat his debauched mentor at his own game.
He is too complicated, however, to be merely calculating. Mr. Hayden -- who replaced Billy Crudup, during rehearsals -- at last has a leading role to match his memorable Billy Bigelow in the Lincoln Center ''Carousel.'' It's a joy to discover he has the chops to translate the same charisma and thoughtfulness into the very different music of Shakespeare.
There is not a clunker in the rest of the cast. Mr. Hawke's hyped-up dude of a Hotspur, Hal's arch rival, may be too contemporary for some tastes. It's hard to credit him as the embodiment of an older order of chivalry. But he's great fun to watch as he fumes and fulminates.
Ms. McDonald, the splendid singer and three-time Tony winner, is lovely as his affection-hungry wife, proving she can play pretty much anything. And Ms. Ivey, who is rivaled only by Marian Seldes for her ubiquity on New York stages, etches yet another vibrant portrait in miniature as Mistress Quickly, the tavern hostess.
Each of the performances serves the play's larger purposes, just as Mr. O'Brien's staging seamlessly elucidates textual motifs. It's no accident that in a production filled with imagery of day and night, one of the earliest scenes finds Hal making shadow puppets on the sleeping Falstaff's sun-drenched face.
You may also wind up hearing patterns of language with new ears. I had never before been so conscious of the use of the word ''safety'' as an excuse for bad behavior, or of how often characters say to one another, ''I know you.''
They don't, of course, not really. In the shadowy landscape of ''Henry IV,'' in which life is truly a battlefield, men mostly keep their deepest purposes to themselves. Perhaps they should not be so surprised when they are betrayed by others. The recognition of this simple and complicated truth brings a conquering sword's edge to what turns out to be the most entertaining show of the season.
Kevin Kline has always struck us as a great character actor stuck in a leading-man's body. Of course, he easily looks the part of the serious hero - as everyone knows from movies, if not from his first home in the theater. But Kline's romantic roles, no matter how intelligently wrought, tend to be a bit restrained, as if handsomeness were more of a costume than something he assumes with the entitled perks of natural vanity.
Ah, but put him in a big fat Falstaff suit, as Jack O'Brien has done so brilliantly in the "Henry IV" that opened last night at the Lincoln Center Theater. Have Kline grow out his beard to Santa Claus dimensions and free his hair to bum's carelessness. And, suddenly, all the complicated, subtle hilarity and heartbreaks of Shakespeare's arguably most misunderstood tragic figure are liberated - as is Kline - in a magnificent portrayal of pride, playful debauchery and unexpected pain.
It says much about O'Brien's production that Kline does not run away with the whole well-populated night. On the contrary, this austere but intimate Shakespeare is as thoroughly engrossing in the warrior politics as in the raunchy tavern of Prince Hal's youthful rebellions against royal obligations. Dakin Matthews' adaptation seamlessly conflates "Henry IV, Parts I and II" into four fast-moving hours. And the cast - including Richard Easton as Hal's disappointed father, King Henry IV, Ethan Hawke as the ambitiously hotheaded Hotspur and Audra McDonald in the small but humanizing role of Hotspur's Lady Percy - is as consistently satisfying as any Shakespeare created here in far too long.
And isn't O'Brien some kind of theatrical mystery, perhaps even a creative hydra? From one head, he makes such musical-comedy bonanzas as "Hairspray" and "The Full Monty." Meanwhile, the other head is plotting, with devastating lucidity, those revelatory Lincoln Center productions of Tom Stoppard's knotty "Hapgood" and "The Invention of Love." Short of imagining for him a cumbersome third head, we assume that O'Brien's Shakespeare, which he staged for more than two decades when artistic director of the Old Globe in San Diego, comes from the brain stem that connects the contradictions.
This is Shakespeare neat, the rare production without tricked-up chronology. It has rich and meticulous Elizabethan costumes by Jess Goldstein, on Ralph Funicello's massive set that outlines structure with rough wooden beams. These, plus a simple but steep wood stairway, are ingeniously reconfigured to suggest an almost cinematic variety of locations. When we are to join Hotspur in a stable, hay merely drops from the sky. When Falstaff is affectionately mounted by the tavern whore for one last fling before war, a bed conveniently appears. Much of the rest, the menace as well as the poetry, is expressed in the nonverbal language of Brian MacDevitt's masterly lights.
Despite the title, this is really the story of Prince Hal, the future Henry V, a coming-of-age drama from fun-loving, carousing boy in Falstaff’s gang to the ruler his father desires. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," says Hal's father, embodied with knowing, conflicted humanity and political lust by Easton. As we first meet the king, he is complaining that he wishes his son were more focused -like that Hotspur, son of his enemy Thomas Percy, played with imperious, contained fury by Byron Jennings.
Michael Hayden, a late replacement for Billy Crudup, is endearing and convincing as Hal, who somehow seems to grow into his face as he turns into a king. Hawke's Hotspur has what seems to be Marine buzz-cut hair and impatient testosterone, sliding down a pole for his entrance and bellowing like a hot-wired rooster. McDonald's Lady Percy has a stabilizing influence on him - though, admittedly, an actress of her stature is a little underemployed by the role.
The battle scenes are simple but convincing. Dana lvey is spikey as Mistress Quickly and regal as Lady Northumberland. Even the dreaded rustics seem like real people.
Most of all, there is Kline, who understands that Falstaff is not a clown or a grotesque but a nobleman with an outlaw's soul. Kline's voice is heavier than it has ever sounded, but not nearly as heavy as his legs and belly. We laugh as he lumbers, yes, but there is honor under the sacks of skin. Even if Hal won't admit it, we know.
Even in his goofiest roles, Kevin Kline has managed to exude a certain spry sex appeal. So when a potbellied old fogey bearing the actor's name waddles onstage at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, it's not hard to imagine that he's some deranged understudy who just ate Kline for lunch.
Once the guy starts to talk, though, the jig is up. That booming baritone, with its joyfully acute diction, is as recognizable as the flair for physical comedy underlying his heavy gait and well-padded getup. It is Kline after all, in the unlikely person of Sir John Falstaff, the knight errant and high priest of hedonism who helps make Henry IV such a riveting excursion.
This new production (***½ out of four), which combines Parts I and II of Shakespeare's play as adapted by Dakin Matthews, runs 3 hours, 45 minutes with two intermissions. But thanks to Kline and an expert company vigorously directed by Jack O'Brien, the time disappears as quickly as a pint of ale before Falstaff's lips.
That ensemble also includes the superb Richard Easton in the title role, and Michael Hayden as Prince Hal, the prodigal son who adds to the king's pile of problems. Hayden, who appeared as eye candy in last season's Enchanted April, seems reinvigorated by the challenge posed by a character torn between the noble life expected of him and the good life that Falstaff revels in.
Not all the stars O'Brien has assembled glitter quite so brightly. Ethan Hawke plays the righteous rebel Hotspur with a shrill, mannered quality. As his Lady Percy, musical theater darling Audra McDonald relays too much of the deep-voiced haughtiness that can thwart her in dramatic roles.
But most of the performances could hardly be better, from Byron Jennings' bracing Earl of Worcester to Dana Ivey's daffy Mistress Quickly. Jeff Weiss and Tom Bloom prove droll as Justices Shallow and Silence, while Anastasia Barzee injects a welcome dose of lyrical femininity as Lady Mortimer.
The macho carousing and dueling are staged with the cunning vibrancy of a thinking man's action/ adventure flick. Company member Steve Rankin, doubling as "fight director," has provided dazzling battle sequences, and Ralph Funicello's spare but fanciful set design lends additional vim and color.
Henry IV isn't over until the fat man sighs, and Hal's final decision to forsake Falstaff's approach to life is as poignant as other scenes are raucously entertaining. When these characters are good, they're very, very good, and when they're bad, they're delightful.
The funeral wreaths for Broadway's lackluster fall season can be taken down and replaced by more festive arrangements. Reprieve from a bruising onslaught of disappointing productions has arrived at last with Jack O'Brien's lucid, endlessly captivating staging of "Henry IV," which crackles across the Vivian Beaumont stage for nearly four hours without losing an ounce of its surging theatrical momentum.
This is populist Shakespeare at its finest: vividly acted, cleanly spoken, staged with a propulsive narrative sweep and an eye for poetic imagery. The battle scenes, so often perfunctory or clumsy, are choreographed with a welcome intensity; the humor is pungent but unforced; the verse is delivered with admirable ease and intelligibility. Most notably, the balance between light and dark in Shakespeare's two plays -- the production combines both parts -- is punctiliously respected. Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight played by Kevin Kline, is not allowed to stuff the production into a bulging pocket and saunter off with the evening. (Harold Bloom, Falstaff's chief literary cheerleader, would not approve.)
The production is not, of course, perfect -- perhaps no staging of these capacious plays could be, since they must work on so many different levels. O'Brien's "Henry IV" is better at the big brush strokes than emotional detail: There is a superficial quality to even the best of the central performances, including Kline's admirable but surprisingly subdued Falstaff. Psychological intricacy takes a back seat to narrative clarity and eloquence of speech, for the most part.
That's a liability in a work shot through with profound ambivalence about human motivation and the morality of the political and social order -- the divided loyalties of Prince Hal are just the most prominent of the ambiguities that run through the play and are only lightly sketched in here. But O'Brien and his collaborators conjure with such conviction the matter and mood of Shakespeare's multifaceted world that we rarely lament any lack of depth and shading in individual roles.
Dakin Matthews' adaptation is, roughly speaking, two cups of part one to one cup part two. (The evening is performed with two intermissions; the events of "Henry IV, Part Two" are condensed into the last act.) Both plays contrast the citadels of power and politics with the lower-class world of play, where Falstaff reigns, but the picture darkens in part two, as the worlds merge to poisonous effect, culminating in Prince Hal's famously cruel rejection of the jolly companion of his former days.
O'Brien's production smoothly integrates the two spheres on a set by Ralph Funicello that takes full advantage of the Vivian Beaumont's deep stage. Thick-trunked wooden scaffolding rises to the top of the theater, providing playing spaces on several levels. The higher ones are reserved for royals and aristocracy, while the roistering in Eastcheap and the violence of battle take place below. Brian MacDevitt's atmospheric lighting helps carve out small pockets of light from darkness when characters retire to the inner chambers of their thoughts. Jess Goldstein's attractive costumes marry period silhouettes with a sleek, contemporary look; the young warriors strut about in sexy, laced-up leather.
There are lots of stylish performances, too. Some of the sharpest impressions are made by actors with only a small amount of stage time. Notable among these is the man who melded the plays together, Matthews, who is quite superb in a pair of supporting perfs. As Glendower, the Welsh lord who gives aid to the rebels, he is a funny, rough-hewn troll, a creature out of "The Lord of the Rings"; only by consulting the program would you recognize him as the actor playing with such authoritative ease the humorless Chief Justice Warwick, Falstaff's nemesis. Matthews has spent most of his career in regional theater -- a loss for New York, since actors so at home in Shakespeare's language are not exactly thick on the ground, even in the country's theatrical capital.
A more recognizable figure to Gotham theatergoers is Audra McDonald, who has only a few scenes but makes the most of them as a hot-blooded Lady Percy, who accepts neither her husband's neglect nor his death without a fight. McDonald's musicality comes through in her smooth facility with the language -- and there's a delicious in-joke too, when, as the rebels relax before the conflict commences, Lady Percy demurs at a musical request, saying, "I will not sing!"
The comic sequences are likewise enlivened by deft, colorful presences in minor roles. Dana Ivey is perfection as a sharp Mistress Quickly, with a hilariously shrill whinny, and Jeff Weiss' rancid Justice Shallow is a particular highlight of the final act.
Among the more prominent performers, there is only a single truly ineffective performance. Movie actor Ethan Hawke is simply out of his depth as Hotspur, the aggressive young rebel leader whose exploits are the envy of the land until impetuousness leads him into folly. Hawke barrels his way through the role with the volume turned up. The feeling is true (although a bit overstated), but Hawke cannot channel it through the verse, instead simply slathering it on top, messily. His demise at the battle of Shrewsbury is something of a relief.
The crucial trio in the play, of course, is Prince Hal and his two father figures. The tug of war for the spirit of Harry is the primary conduit for the plays' deeper layers of meaning. King Henry IV represents the world of duty and power and responsibility -- ideas that give primacy to the future and the past. Falstaff, Hal's surrogate father from the lower depths, is the man who lives in the moment and for the moment, for life's pleasures, which must be grasped with gusto to keep the specter of death at bay.
Falstaff, the consummate man of inaction, will say anything and everything to achieve his ends, but they are simple ones: eating, drinking and staying alive. He will come to see he's tutored Hal too well in the art of talk, however, and will learn in the most brutal fashion that linguistic facility can be used to more momentous and unsavory ends.
The outcome of the battle for Harry's soul is never really in doubt here: As played by Michael Hayden, in both style and substance Prince Hal is the clear successor to Richard Easton's Henry IV. Both actors give vigorous, handsomely spoken performances that deliver the meaning of the verse with clarity; neither Hal nor Henry, however, strikes us as a man of profound feeling.
Nor, in truth, does Kline's Falstaff. Kline's debauched but dignified Sir John will surely be a highlight of this esteemed stage actor's Shakespearean career. It's a dryly funny, technically superb portrayal that shines a strong light on the glittering intelligence behind the character's hearty cynicism -- Kline is marvelously adroit at communicating the verbal wit that sings in Falstaff's every line. But the performance stints on the exuberance we associate with the character, and cherish in him; Kline is almost unrecognizable inside a convincing fat suit, but the performance itself has a lean quality.
And yet, while Mr. Bloom would no doubt be scandalized that his beloved Falstaff has been cut down to size, the lack of theatrical volume in the performance brings a haunting sense of doom to Kline's Falstaff. The relative sobriety of Kline's reading carries its own pathos: This great symbol of life seems uncomfortably aware -- even more so than usual -- of the irksome proximity of death, always ready to spoil the party.
This is in part due to the severely truncated presentation of the play's second part. The ruminations on illness and mortality, on the part of both Falstaff and Henry IV, are more tightly packed together. Some of the play's other prominent themes -- the increasing discordance between words and deeds, between appearance and actuality -- are underrealized, but the ultimate battle that underscores the martial conflict on the play's surface -- the combat fought in every man's flesh between life and death -- is always a strongly felt presence.
Indeed here it is not Falstaff's rejection by Prince Hal that breaks the heart -- the bark of Hayden's King Henry V frankly doesn't have much emotional bite -- but what follows immediately thereafter, a searing image that is the crowning moment of this beautifully directed production (perhaps Matthews' editorial hand should share the credit).
After his plea for attention has been rebuffed, the court recedes, and Falstaff's fellows abandon him in scorn. He stands alone and delivers into the fading light the last line: "I shall be sent for soon at night." It's a harrowing moment: We cannot escape, even if Falstaff does, the real meaning of the words. It's not the king, but death itself that will soon be calling him to play.