- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

“Henry IV, Part I” is more about the wayward Prince Hal’s ripening into a leader than about his father, the monarch. However, the Shakespeare Theatre’s production, under the direction of Bill Alexander, belongs to two other characters: the roisterer Falstaff and the temper-tossed Hotspur.

Ted van Griethuysen’s canny portrayal of the career carouser John Falstaff and Andrew Long’s caustic, hair-trigger portrait of the rebel Hotspur, are the two biggest reasons to take in “Henry IV, Part I.” The two actors bring such originality and vitality to their roles that the rest of the production suffers in comparison.

Mr. Griethuysen plays the drunken fat man as an ursine epicure in a food-stained shirt. His manner is grand and courtly even as he makes the rounds of the sordid taverns of London. His Falstaff is not a coarse slob, but a deeply merry man of the world who takes palpable pleasure in food, drink, flesh and wit. His eyes twinkle and his mouth purses with the satisfaction of someone in perpetual remembrance of a great meal, a good glass of wine, and a tall tale well told. Prince Hal (Christopher Kelly) could not ask for a better mentor.

Hal’s nemesis, Hotspur, is performed with consummate Type-A obsessive-compulsiveness by Mr. Long. There is unexpected and welcome humor mined in what is normally a humorlessly driven character. Mr. Long’s Hotspur is seen as a cockily confident, frequently sarcastic man of action, and the role is humanized by his crazy temper, which makes him a kind of Plantagenet version of Yosemite Sam.

They even seem to inspire those around them. The character actor Hugh Nees, playing Falstaff’s beleaguered servant Bardolph, appears reinvigorated, and his clowning takes on added dexterity in his scenes with Mr. van Griethuysen. Similarly, Elisabeth Adwin, playing Lady Percy, Hotspur’s wife, is exuberant in her exchanges with her changeable husband. Their playful slaps and jibes hint at a joyous, union of equals.

One wishes the rest of “Henry IV” rose to such ambitious heights. Other than Keith Baxter’s astute and keenly measured performance as the guilt-haunted King Henry IV, the rest of the production is largely workmanlike and uninspired.

Mr. Kelly looks the part of the rebellious son, who would rather paint the town with Falstaff than live up to princely expectations, until rebel forces from Wales awaken the nobility and gallantry within him. Yet, except for a dinner table scene with his father late in the second act, you never quite get inside Hal’s nature, and thus his maturation into the role of a leader is never quite convincing.

The lackluster quality of the production makes for some arduous moments that seem like hours, since the talkiness of the play is emphasized. Even the battle scenes are full of billowy chat.

The battle scenes themselves are faintly ridiculous, with mortar shells and bombs going off in the background while the two forces inexplicably grapple it out with swords and axes. Why aren’t they availing themselves of the explosives and ammo that seem so plentiful in the sound design?

If you are willing to brave the lulls and ho-hum of the rest of the production of “Henry IV, Part I,” you will be elevated by the titanic performances by Mr. van Griethuysen and Mr. Long.

**1/2

WHAT: “Henry IV, Part 1” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: The Shakespeare Theatre, 450 7th St., NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays to Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 13.

TICKETS: $16 to $66

PHONE: 202/547-1122

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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