Few sequels are as successful as the originals, and that's certainly proved true of Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 2." But Michael Kahn, artistic director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre, has devised a production that not only does justice to the sequel, it uses it to expand and illuminate the themes in Part 1.
Kahn has done this by abridging Parts 1 and 2 and mounting them as a single four-hour production, jointly titled "Henry IV."
By the time Prince Hal is crowned Henry V at the end of the evening, the issues of honor, loyalty, justice and responsibility -- all introduced in Part 1 -- have been thoroughly explored. And the play's chief theme -- the training of the true prince -- is resolved in Derek Smith's strikingly empathetic and humane portrait of Hal.
Shakespeare presents Hal as a son with two fathers: his stern and proper biological father, Henry IV, and the surrogate whom Hal has chosen -- fat, merry, wanton Sir John Falstaff.
Productions of either part frequently take the easy way out by using Hal's rejection of Falstaff and acceptance of Henry IV to indicate the end of the prince's prodigal youth and the start of his mature adulthood. But the strongest proof of this production's depth and insight is that Smith and director Kahn eschew this easy interpretation in favor of a more complex and satisfying portrait of Hal.
Two telling scenes, one from Part 1 and the other from Part 2, offer the clearest example.
In a famous Part 1 tavern scene, Falstaff and Hal engage in role-playing. The fat knight plays wayward Hal, and Hal plays Henry IV, rebuking his son. The scene concludes with Hal pretending to reject Falstaff -- an action that foreshadows Hal's actual banishment of Falstaff at the end of Part 2.
This first scene can be tossed off matter-of-factly, as Hal's rehearsal for the final scene. Smith, however, imbues it with sincerity. He nearly chokes on his words and can't bring himself to look David Sabin's jolly Falstaff in the eye.
With this scene still fresh in mind, its mirror image at the conclusion of Part 2 takes on an aura of profound sadness. Yet at the same time, it reinforces the thesis that Henry V will be a fit monarch not merely because he has traded his loose-living past for newfound political acumen, but also because he is a man of genuine emotions.
Smith makes Hal's relationship with his real father, Henry IV, equally moving. Although he is a far more demanding and distant father than Sabin's effusive Falstaff, Ted van Griethuysen's Henry IV is nonetheless a father motivated by heartfelt concern.
As valiant but hot-headed Hotspur (whom Henry IV wishes were his son and not his enemy), Edward Gero has an apt mixture of impetuousness and brawn. But if women's liberation had been in force in the 14th century, the greater threat to Henry IV's crown would have come from Hotspur's fiery wife -- at least as she is portrayed by brawling Caitlin O'Connell.
O'Connell and Gero's fisticuffs provide some of the production's humor, but the most raucous scene is the free-for-all initiated by Daniel Southern as Falstaff's rabid crony, Pistol.
Southern's physical appearance, which suggests a heavy-metal rocker, is one of the production's lesser liberties -- along with Hal's tiger-striped red trousers, and an onstage saxophone.
The greater liberty is director Kahn's adaptation of Shakespeare's two-part father-son chronicle. And for that, the highest praise I can give is to say he has handled it with fatherly care.
What: "Henry IV"
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St. N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays (no performance tonight), matinees 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Nov. 6
Call: (202) 393-2700