Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, nearly finished with the immense task of staging all 38 of Shakespeare’s surviving plays over its 20-year history, has launched another noteworthy effort: It’s staging — in chronological order — the eight plays that constitute the “History Cycle,” documenting dynastic struggles in 14th- and 15th-century England. When this five-year project is finished, CSC will be just the second company in the U.S. to have done so. The cycle kicked off last season with Richard II, a play about the British king whose weak-willed reign (1377-1399) ended when he was deposed by his bold cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV.
Cincinnati Shakespeare has just opened a three-week production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. It’s slightly more than three hours long, condensing Part I as its first act and Part II as its second. The stories explore the influences on Prince Hal (Justin McCombs) of his father, the once brash but now regretful King Henry IV (Jim Hopkins), and the dissolute Sir John Falstaff (Matthew Lewis Johnson), perhaps Shakespeare’s most popular comic character. Nineteen actors play more than 50 roles, but women are barely seen. Sara Clark plays a young boy. Miranda McGee and Maggie Lou Rader have a few showy comic moments as Mistress Quickly, the madam of a brothel, and Doll Tearsheet, an especially crude whore (who offers two spectacular drunken spews), but they are more props than characters. That makes for a testosterone-laden production, full of boys and a lot of noise.
There’s a ton of chest thumping — especially by the aptly named Harry Hotspur (Zach Schute), who constantly bellows about his eagerness for battle and to wrest the crown from its usurper. His death in combat at the hands of Prince Hal (the climax of Act I, as well as the conclusion of Part I’s story) silences him, but plenty more hold forth, including his father Northumberland (Giles Davies), the Archbishop of York (Billy Chace) and others eventually rounded up and executed for their treason to the crown. In fact, because characters come and go so frequently, it’s a challenge to follow the action. (Brent Vimtrup twice briefly reprises his role as Richard II, a bloody ghostly presence haunting Henry IV, but if you missed last year’s production, you might wonder who he is.)
All in all, audiences are more likely to remember the production’s tomfoolery with Johnson’s Falstaff at its epicenter. He has a long history with CSC (although he’s been absent for several seasons), excelling at larger-than-life comedy, and his several scenes of ribald and raucous merriment are quite entertaining, if sometimes overlong. He’s surrounded by antic characters, including Paul Riopelle and Giles Davies as a pair of silly, elderly country justices who reminisce about the past.
Early on, Prince Hal confesses in a soliloquy that his bad behavior is a calculated preface to the responsible role he must eventually take on as king: “I’ll so offend to make offence a skill,” he explains, “redeeming time when men least think I will.” It takes a while to get there, but we eventually see him, after Henry IV’s lengthy death scene, rise to the occasion, much to the dismay of Falstaff and his band of brigands, who are banished. Hal grows up quickly, but his new no-nonsense demeanor puts a dour note on the proceedings — especially if we’ve been reveling for several hours with the carousers in the Eastcheap taverns and brothels.
I wanted to like this production more — especially because it features some moments of fine acting (Hopkins’ regretful Henry IV, Johnson’s ebullient Falstaff and McCombs’ likeable Prince Hal). Wrestling all this material into a coherent production is the challenge of Henry IV, and it’s certainly what director Brian Phillips endeavored to put onstage. But ultimately it felt like too much and not enough.
Henry V, scheduled for May 2015, explores the king who was once Prince Hal. Henry VI (which has three parts, but is often condensed) and Richard III will follow in subsequent seasons.
HENRY IV, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through April 19. Tickets: 513-381-2273, x1.