Whispers, gossip, hearsay and hushed voices echo in the prologue to “Henry IV, Part Two” as Rumor rises out of the mist. Alejandra Escalante as Rumor tells the tale of Henry IV, the backstory if you will, of this Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of “Henry IV, Part Two.”
In "Part One," Prince Hal was in the prime of his youth, exuberant and carefree, but the nation is divided and his father, King Henry IV, is troubled for his people. "Part One" ends in a cliff hanger of sorts: the Prince of Wales proves himself in battle and the rebel forces are given rout, but the future of the country is not secure.
Performed back to back in the same season, “Henry IV, Part Two” is the more serious of the two plays and for many, will be the favored production. The characters seem older, harder and weary. There are far fewer jests and puns and our attention is turned inward to the minds and hearts of the play and not to war or the outward trappings of wealth and privilege. We learn the true nature of these characters — those who stand by the king and those who deny him. We share the weight of the crown.
Prince Hal is again played by Daniel Jose Molina, who again is superb. Where once his movements were playful, fluid and relaxed, here he becomes stronger and more assured even as his father, played by the so rightly named Jeffrey King, loses strength unto death. Molina shows the arc of this character so well, from boy to man to king. And King’s deathbed moments are heart rending, the crown symbolic of loss and ravenous in its demands for King Henry’s life. Though the mosaic on the wall behind King Henry IV’s throne is now complete and his reign consecrated, the king is ashen and weary, garbed in night clothes rather than the rich robes of royalty.
Hal returns only briefly to the scenes of his youth with a stop back to the Boar’s Head, when in disguise he learns of Falstaff’s avarice. Mistress Quickly, played by Michele Mais, has come down in the world, her pink faux fur coat now soiled and shabby. She has a larger presence in “Henry IV, Part Two” and a more substantial role in the play, one of the few characters who does not dissemble or deceive. Mais’ delightful squawks entertain and annoy throughout, just as they should, until she sings and the theater is filled with her bluesy vocals.
Tyrone Wilson, an understudy, is phenomenal as Falstaff. We’ve come to expect G. Valmont Thomas as Falstaff in the Henry plays and certainly missed him in this performance, but Wilson didn’t drop a line. Wilson has the girth and the flagrant bravado the character calls for, but Wilson gives much more. Despite Prince Hal’s increasing distance, Falstaff still prides himself on his ability to bamboozle and connive. In "Part Two," Wilson as Falstaff is convincingly on edge, broke and desperate. Wilson was on book, but just barely; his use of the script was gifted — more as a prop in hand or pocket, and oh so subtly without even reference, Wilson turned pages to keep pace with the performance. Absolutely stellar is Wilson, and it was wonderful to see the camaraderie and congratulations of the cast at the end of the show.
“Henry IV, Part Two” is dense and emotionally draining, but there was one purely comedic scene designed perhaps to give relief to the weight of the play. Act III, Scene II, had the audience in uncontrollable, really loud, riotous laughter. Falstaff heads to Glostershire where he’ll freeload off friends, pick up a few soldiers and get a payoff from others. In this scene, Richard Elmore struts his stuff as Shallow, Lauren Modica snores loudly as Silent and most delightfully absurd was the talented Robin Goodrin Nordli as Feeble, a woman’s tailor who wears his pants way too high and is totally confused in a genuinely good-hearted way. This scene and these characters represent one of OSF’s most clever castings: These befuddled, disordered and fully comedic roles contrast with their alternate beings. Elmore is also the stern and unforgiving Lord Bardolf, Modica is unrepentant as Mowbray and Goodrin Nordli is justly heroic as Lord Chief Justice.
Prince Hal, now King Henry V, is a reluctant king and ultimately promises to be a fair one. “Henry IV, Part Two” is about rejecting injustice — the betrayals, treason and grievances that split a nation. The play looks to a new king and a new future with hope and determination — towards healing, compromise and civil discourse. What future this king will have for all of us is a couple years yet to know. We can only hope that a new leader will wear that crown in good faith and gain honest counsel from their lord chief justices.
"Henry IV, Part Two” runs through Oct. 29 in the Thomas Theatre, with a sign-interpreted performance on Oct. 8. The show runs about 2 hours, 45 minutes, including one intermission. See osfashland.org for information, including a video prologue, an interview with director Carl Cofield and photo essays of the play.
Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, Oregon and can be reached at email@example.com.