In his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, critic Harold Bloom writes that, along with Hamlet, Falstaff is "superior to everyone else whom they, and we, encounter in their plays," and that this superiority is "most vitally ... a matter of personality."
That vital characteristic - personality - is largely missing from actor Ted van Griethuysen's muted portrayal of the fat knight in Henry IV, Part 1 at Washington's Shakespeare Theatre. It's also largely missing from the rest of director Bill Alexander's bland production.
The chief exception is Keith Baxter, whose portrayal of the troubled title character bristles with energy and suggests the power that might have illuminated a similarly spirited production (such as the abridged, moving combination of Parts 1 and 2 mounted by Michael Kahn at this theater in 1994). Indeed, in bolder hands, it's not difficult to imagine this father-son drama taking on resonances of the reigns of George Bush senior and junior.
What Alexander gives us instead is a by-the-numbers, uninspired rendition of a magnificent text that can - and should - be a stirring commentary not only on the making of a king and leader, but also on the relationship between a stern, powerful father and an unruly son on the one hand, and between the same wild son and a hedonistic surrogate father on the other.
From the start, however, Christopher Kelly's Prince Hal seems far less wild and unruly than cool and calculating. It's almost as if he has decided to forgo the boisterous company of Falstaff and his band of rascals even before the play begins, thus robbing the audience of the dramatic experience of seeing the prince mature before our eyes.
In the opening scene, Henry IV says he wishes that, instead of Hal, his son were Hotspur, "a son who is the theme of honour's tongue." Seeing Andrew Long's impassioned and impetuous portrayal of Hotspur (he's so impulsive, he interrupts his own father), further accentuates the division between Hal and Hotspur, who no longer seem to be the equal-but-opposite antagonists called for in the text.
Alexander's unimaginative direction frequently strands actors front, center and virtually motionless as they deliver speeches - staging that can scarcely be expected to enliven the proceedings. Even so, there are several distinguished supporting performances, particularly those of Elisabeth Adwin as Hotspur's proud wife; Hugh Nees as Falstaff's bumbling servant, Bardolph; and Caleb Mayo as Poins, a friend of Hal's who, in this production, displays more gumption than the prince.
The Shakespeare Theatre is following Henry IV, Part 1, with a production Henry IV, Part 2, also to be directed by Alexander. The two parts will then run in rotating repertory for two weeks in May. This could be an enticing prospect, but only if the productions get an infusion of personality.
What: Henry IV, Part 1
Where: Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St., N.W., Washington
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and most Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sundays and most Saturdays, through March 13; in rotating repertory with Henry IV, Part 2 May 5-16