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Connecticut Theater

"H4--Henry IV"
Summer Theatre of New Canaan

Summer Theatre of New Canaan has shown great courage in taking on Henry IV—Parts I and II (which the company has adapted and renamed H4—Henry IV). For some of us, Shakespeare’s history plays are deadly dull, given their interminable battles and intrigues.  One wonders why the New Canaan company has chosen to stage these two lengthy, tiresome plays (originally with 75 pages of tightly-printed dialogue, by our count).

But this particular history play has one saving grace. It introduces the world to Falstaff, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest character.  Moreover, the two plays have been condensed into one, with its focus on the indomitable Falstaff. And it is indeed fortunate that the excellent Brian Silliman commands that role. Every moment Silliman is on stage, carrying out his antics, is absorbing. One can largely ignore the plays’ other aspect—the historic struggle between king and insurgents which escalates into war.

Falstaff is the embodiment of comedy and tragedy. The fat knight lies, wheedles, overeats, over-drinks, and has a grand old time with his band of thieves and bawds. Moreover, the seemingly madcap (and future King) Prince Hal is his boon companion.  But the moment of truth comes near the play’s close, when Hal, now Henry V, forsakes him. But Falstaff explains away this turn of events, claiming it is the King’s public posture. Hal still loves him. He stands at stage center and repeats, “I will be sent for,” as the New Canaan adaptation draws to a close. It is the production’s most heart-breaking moment.

Seeking a modern imprint, director Allegra Libonati has dressed her cast in modern attire and fashions the tale into a popular television show (“24”). There is much use of video--and the passage of time, down to the second, is flashed on the screen. For those of us unfamiliar with “24” and even those who know the show, this connection is pointless. Perhaps Libonati is trying to point out that war, wit, comedy, tragedy are timeless.

As to the cast, Silliman towers above the rest, but Michael Nathanson is strong as Price Hal. Their dual scenes are priceless, particularly the scene which unfolds the night before Hal is called to appear before his father. Moving into the audience, the players set up a throne on a picnic bench. There, each takes turns impersonating the King as he berates his son. Richard Sheridan Willis is first-rate as well, creating a Henry IV with majesty, strength, and seriousness of purpose. Others in the cast, however, fall below these three stellar performances.

In all, “H4” works well on occasion, falters at other moments. But it comes off as an intriguing experiment.

--Irene Backalenick
June 21, 2010

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