(First off: my sincere apologies to the company for my constant coughing through the performance.)
Henry Bolingbroke, having snatched the English crown with boist’rous hands, must now struggle to keep it. The alliances he forged now fraying to the point where his allies become enemies, while his eldest son Prince Hal seemingly more concerned with mischief-making and drinking with Falstaff and his buddies at Eastscheap than preparing for his ascent.
This is a play with some of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, biggest showdowns, steamiest relationships, the Bard at his hottest, fiercest, and bawdiest. Brave Spirits captures much of these elements, infused with moments of buoyant humor, intelligent and studious direction, actors who work their tails off; it’s a creditable production that very nearly hits it out of the park.
Perhaps in time (especially when some petty scrivener isn’t hacking their lungs out through all the best bits) some performances will sharpen and deepen, fight sequences will gain spontaneity and edge, and the production will find its lane. That’s the trouble with press nights, especially in the midst of Charlene Smith’s mammoth Histories project when her actors have already opened one show and are rehearsing two others on top of this one, and will shortly be performing all four simultaneously.
Although the play is named after his dad, this is pretty much Prince Hal’s show, and Brendan Edward Kennedy delivers a lively, layered performance. Ian Blackwell Rogers remains one of the most preternaturally gifted classical actors in the DC area; though physically he is cast against type as Falstaff, he manages to make the role his own.
The other plum role in this show is Henry Percy, aka Hotspur. Joshua Williams toys with precedent, playing him with a sense of privileged entitlement. When he blows up at his would-be allies, he comes off buffoonish, more of a Trump son. An interesting take, though the scenes with Lady Kate (Jillian Riti) want chemistry and sizzle.
With all the other big, boisterous characters, King Henry himself gets a bit overshadowed, and that’s mostly the writing, but nonetheless, I couldn’t help but wish for a bigger impression from John Stange.
Henry the Fourth, Part 1 closes April 9, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
Tom Howley (Glendower, Vernon, etc) and Molly E Thomas (Lady Mortimer, Douglas, etc) turn in very impressive ensemble work, juggling multiple characters, as does Dean Carlson (Blunt, Percy, Edmund Mortimer, etc). The three have a particularly impressive scene in which Howley and Thomas speak entirely in Welsh. Michael Bannigan Jr (Lancaster, Poins) and Zach Brewster-Geisz (Bardolph, Archbishop of York) also turn in solid supporting work.
The same production team worked on Richard II, and I presume part 2 and Henry V, and I have nothing new to add except that I failed to mention the impressive costuming of Kristen P Ahern, who effectively crafts a timeless merging of contemporary and classical designs.
There’s a lot to like in this production, and a few other elements may well come around. I look forward to Part 2, which should be an interesting challenge for our Brave Spirits, given that most of the script elements that make Part 1 one of Shakespeare’s best plays are absent. And hopefully by then my cough will be under control.
Henry the Fourth Part 1, written by William Shakespeare, directed by Charlene V Smith. Cast: Michael Bannigan Jr, Ian Blackwell Rogers, Zack Brewster-Geisz, Dean Carlson, Lisa Hill-Corley, Briana Goode, Tom Howley, Brendan Edward Kennedy, Jillian Riti, Nicole Ruthmarie, John Stange, Molly E Thomas, Joshua Williams. Dramaturg: Emily MacLeod. Costume Design: Kristen Ahern. Set Designer: Megan Holden. Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke. Fight Director: Casey Kaleba. Composer/Music Director/Associate Director: Jordan Friend. Movement Director: Amanda Forstrom. Properties: Caolan Eder. Intimacy Coordinator: Megan Behm. Hair & Makeup: Hannah Fogler. Dialect Coach: Jenna Berk. Welsh Consultant: Dan Stevens. Assistant Stage Manager: Kirra Sharpe. Production Stage Manager: Jen Katz. Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre. Review by John Geoffrion.