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Something new every time: That’s what I get out of Shakespeare. New contrasts, new echoes, new insights with each visit among characters I’ve met before. Ferinstance: Last time I saw Henry IV—in the back-to-back stagings of Parts I and II at the Lansburgh a few years back—its emotional center was a commandingly patrician but palpably human king trying to rein in a wastrel son with whom he clearly had once had a connection. Now, in Paul Mason Barnes’ quietly compelling Folger Theatre production, it’s Rick Foucheux’s weary warrior of a Henry tottering on England’s throne, a decidedly less authoritative ruler warily watching his fractious nobles and wishing his heir weren’t so useless. There’s no chemistry at all, this time, between monarch and miscreant son—which makes Henry’s lines about wishing he could trade Tom Story’s Prince Hal in for a sturdier model ring a little differently, to say the least. And that passage about Hal’s behavior being too much like that of feckless Richard, the king Henry deposed? The risks implied have always been there, but they stand out more urgently with a king as visibly embattled as Foucheux’s. Not least because this staging’s rebellious Hotspur, played by David Graham Jones, seems such a clear and present danger to the family claim: Shakespeare gives him (and his allies) a not unreasonable set of grievances, and with Jones’ alert, charismatic Hotspur looking like so much better a successor—to a king who’s usurped the throne, let’s remember, in a realm turned on its ear—you’re almost ready to root, root, root for the away team. But only almost. And Story, cannily, calibrates his performance to seduce you back by stages: His version of Hal’s last dissolute days with Falstaff (a fine Delaney Williams, in his savviest senior-hound-dog mode) is the chronicle not of a ne’er-do-well’s change
of heart but of a diffident hero’s slow acceptance of a role he’d hoped to avoid. You can see the readiness in Story’s prince, and the reluctance, nearly from the start—and you feel for old Falstaff, as Shakespeare surely meant that you should, each time Story steps back from their revels to measure his companion against the trials he knows are coming. For somehow, in that assessment, all of the charm of
Williams’ reprobate falls away, and you see in Hal’s eyes the shabby picture the world sees when it looks at them both. And then, in the flicker of shame that follows, you see the young man’s coming triumphs and the old man’s sorry end.