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Weary kings, weary clowns, weary rebel lords, and—dare one suggest it?—weary audiences are the sum of the Shakespeare Theatre’s Henry IV, Part 2. Dark and dutiful and yes, a little dull, Bill Alexander’s meticulously literate production dwells on the words, on the cadences, on the relationships and the politics that inform this darker half of what’s too often thought of as The Education of Henry V, but it never bothers itself with anything like a sense of vitality.
Blame, to start with, the studied history-book air that pervades the proceedings as we rejoin the story, which left off at the end of Part 1 with the defeat of Harry “Hotspur” Percy and his rebellion against England’s King Henry IV. After a nifty induction, with tavern gossips spreading conflicting reports of the Battle of Shrewsbury, the action settles into yet another scene of recalcitrant nobles plotting yet another uprising against the monarch who, not so many years before, had overthrown yet another king—the hapless Richard II. Talk of revenge and of religion (an archbishop gets involved in the insurrection this time) frames a picture of a disordered society, “a bleeding land gasping for life.” Would that Alexander put anything so vital onstage, but no: His scheming dukes and earls and prelates come and go, undifferentiated in all but name, dry heralds of a sanguinary history.
And then comes Falstaff—wry, rollicking Sir John Falstaff, bemused observer and unrepentant exploiter, the very incarnation of the rude, unjust, chaotic, freewheeling, opportunistic society that will breathe its last under the ordering influence of Henry V. Here’s a grand figure: In a single, masterful scene, Shakespeare brings him on with a piss joke, has him match wits with the king’s chief justice, and hurries him off to the wars again, reluctant and ill-provisioned as ever. It’s the point at which the play usually starts to take on whatever life it’s going to have, but here and throughout the proceedings, Ted van Griethuysen’s conception of the gouty old roisterer is such a masterpiece of impenetrability that the whole business feels somehow devoid of import.
Falstaff’s “fascination and his peril,” wrote Herschel Baker, is in the way he embodies both liberty and entropy: “He amuses and instructs us by exposing fraud and folly, but he appalls us by annihilating all sense of order.” Not here, he doesn’t; van
Griethuysen’s rheumy-eyed reprobate is more a tired old man than the many-faceted mystery who has fascinated five centuries’ worth of critics, and never does he seem like much of a threat to the established way of things. There’s no dignity at his core, only the expected sham thereof about his externals, and there’s no pathos in the moment when his tongue—his only reliable weapon—betrays him before the prince whose surrogate father he has been. And if there’s nothing seductive about Falstaff, no convincing bond to be broken between the old rogue and the rascal heir, there’s not much at stake here: Without a Falstaff to conjure with, Alexander can’t work the magic that makes the transformation of Prince Hal more than a run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story.
Not that we’re inclined to trouble ourselves overmuch about Christopher Kelly’s callow young Henry, either. As in Henry IV, Part 1 (which runs in repertory with Part 2 beginning May 5), he’s at once too aloof for us to worry about his dissolution—he’s all cool, blond hauteur, never fully engaged with Falstaff and the other Eastcheap miscreants—and too unexciting for us to care whether he cleans up his act. For all the anguish Keith Baxter’s noble ruin of a Henry IV voices over the succession, you get the sense that one of the other young princes might do just as well.
Baxter’s pretty marvelous, it should be noted, all ragged authority and frustrated energy, and the climactic deathbed scene he shares with Kelly does generate some real emotional turmoil as the old king confronts his bloody legacy and the maturing prince begins to understand the burden he’ll assume along with the crown. Among the subsidiary roles, Naomi Jacobson’s anxiously sexual Doll Tearsheet and Nancy Robinette’s emotionally exposed Mistress Quickly offer miniature portraits of messy, genuine humanity. And throughout, Ruari Murchison’s dark, spare sets and jewel-toned costumes—the effect is of epic figures stepping into life from the pages of an illuminated manuscript—suggest a sense of weight and drama that’s too often lacking in the performances. But the action returns inexorably to the fat man and his undoing—it is the passion of Sir John, this play, as much as it is the story of a kingmaking—and the fall of van Griethuysen’s Falstaff seems ultimately a small and unremarkable thing.
I’ve always suspected that Russian literature gets a bad rap—it couldn’t be that turgid, could it? But the Stanislavsky Theater Studio’s lifeless mounting of Fathers and Sons comes perilously close to suggesting that even an Irishman could plumb Turgenev’s immensely humane study of generational conflict and find nothing to laugh about—or to cry over, either.
The trouble, it turns out, isn’t in Brian Friel’s adaptation of the novel, which makes eminently playable work of Turgenev’s sprawling narrative—the story incorporates political upheaval and class conflict, domestic turmoil and romantic rivalries, even the 19th-century fiction formula’s requisite epidemic—so much as in Andrei Malaev-Babel’s brutally tone-deaf, irredeemably static staging and the undercooked characterizations that anchor it.
The worst shortcomings are in some of the most important roles: Neither Sasha Olinick’s vapid fop of a student, nor Joe Mills’ grating half-wit of a patriarch, nor (most crucially) Ian Blackwell Rogers’ sullen, black-clad caricature of a nihilist intellectual has the slightest depth or individuality to him. Ratya Teles and Richard Orr, it’s true, do relatively sensitive work as the mistress and brother of Mills’ ineffectual estate owner, but they can’t carry the show alone, and the rest of the assembled forces are far too green to grapple successfully with the hard truths the play considers. Never let it be said that a small, scrappy company can’t make sense of a complex show—but let’s do acknowledge that Stanislavsky has made a great deal of empty nonsense out of Fathers and Sons. CP