Do not miss the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Henry IV Part 1 at the Blackfriars Playhouse, through November 27. I’ll definitely be seeing it at least one more time. The entire play and everyone in it is marvelous, but the performance that is most captivating is James Keegan as Falstaff. Keegan is also Falstaff in this season’s Merry Wives of Windsor, but this is a different sort of play and a different sort of Falstaff.
In Henry IV, Prince Hal (beautifully portrayed by Luke Eddy) learns about real life among the people, including rogues like Falstaff who loves life beyond measure, and also loves Hal. When Hal is summoned by his father, King Henry IV, to join the wars against the rebel Harry Percy, Falstaff cautions him, not only out of self-interest but also out of genuine concern. In the ensuing fight, Hal emerges with great honor, and Falstaff is saved from himself, at least for now.
René Thornton Jr. is wonderful as King Henry IV. His presence is commanding, and he makes one of the most believable kings I’ve seen. Tobias Shaw is excellent as Hotspur, Harry Percy, a hothead who listens to no one, including his uncle, the frustrated Earl of Worcester, played by the incomparable John Harrell. But there are many more fine performances in this show, as well: Chris Johnston as both the Earl of Douglas and Poins, one of Hal’s buddies; Chris Seiler as Walter Blunt and also the mysterious Owen Glendower, a Welshman who claims he can call spirits forth; Daniel Rigney as Mortimer and also as Bardolph, a companion of Falstaff; and Allison Glenzer, who seems made for the part of Mistress Quickly (no offense intended, Allison!).
But the real reason to see this play, and the reason I’ll see it again, is the relationship between Falstaff and Hal, which Keegan and Eddy make a thing of beauty. The genuine fondness of Hal and Falstaff for each other, and the blustery way they show it, makes for great comedy, but it also provides the starkest contrast to the serious side of the play and its discourse on honor and counterfeit. Falstaff knows who he is and he knows who Hal is and what he embodies, even if Hal is not yet ready to take on that role. Hal, for his part, knows that Falstaff cannot be coddled forever, and yet the sight of his old friend apparently slain on the battlefield is overwhelming to him. It’s a love story, and one that I want to think about at length.
And even if the serious side of the play doesn’t interest you, go just to see James Keegan as Falstaff. Brilliant.