EPIC HISTORY Monmouth's Henry IV offers intelligent performances in a steampunk setting.
Shakespeare's Henry IV is considered one of his "histories," as it enacts actual acts and battles of the British king who deposed Richard II. But its complex logistics of alliances and rebellion also form a vessel in which play out some of the Bard's most sophisticated and satisfying relationships: the King (Thomas Anthony Quinn) and his son Prince Hal (Chris Allen), who has lately displeased him by slumming it in the taverns; Hal and his surrogate father, the legendary fat drunkard Falstaff (Bill Van Horn); Hal and his foil Henry Percy (Dustin Tucker) a young rebel whose bravery the King wishes were of his own spawn. In Shakespeare's gorgeous language and characterizations, Henry IV presents not just a complicated history but a rich treatment of family, loyalty, and honor. Lovers of the Bard should not miss the superb production of Henry IV, Part 1, at Theater at Monmouth, under the direction of the company's new Producing Artistic Director, Dawn McAndrews.
Do not be put off by the revelation that McAndrews has gone steampunk on Henry and his kingdom. While clockworks and retro-futuristic eyepieces have become a rather over-fashionable way to spice up the classics, and while the choice here seems unnecessary and its relationship to the text not particularly explored, neither is it distracting or ill-wrought. In fact, it's pretty sexy: On a stage set with a vertiginously angled grid of fine wire mesh, a drop of dirty industrial plastic, and a row of bare bulbs on chainlink, the King sits in a throne of gears and spikes (set design by Michael Minahan), strapping young bawds drink sack (a sweet wine sharpened with brandy) in leather tunics and aviator goggles, young Percy fumes in black leather pants and a mohawk, and his uncle Worcester (James Noel Hoban) wears tails with truly incredible pale aquamarine batwing lapels (costumes by Heather Carey).
More importantly, the performances of Monmouth's Henry IV are among the most supple and intelligent I've seen of Shakespeare in New England. In the hands of Allen, a tall and lissome drink of water, Hal has a fresh-faced alacrity and a remarkably long and nuanced arc to his maturation. He and Falstaff (excellently full of debauch and compassion as portrayed by Van Horn) have a crudely affectionate rapport that veers just often enough in to the poignant: When Falstaff, playacting as the King to Hal, says truth enough to sting him, Hal reciprocates as King to Falstaff's Hal with a vehement cruelty, in which Allen eloquently shows the young man's hurt, his guilt for the company he keeps, and the remorse he feels, even as he's doing it, for abusing his friend.
As Hal's foil Percy, whose fiery petulance seems to rise in proportion to Hal's measured resolve, Dustin Tucker is simply magnificent. For years, Tucker has often been cast in mainly comedic roles, with here and there a hint of his true range; in this production he opens all the stops. His Percy is mercurial, quick, and roiling with devastatingly intelligent passion, though Tucker does also bring his wickedly timed comedy (even his trademark clenched, toothy grin). Watching Percy take peevish jabs at the self-important warrior Owen Glendower (Matthew Delamater, glowering like a primitive god), is an epic pleasure, as is his bantering lust and love with Lady Percy (Ambien Mitchell, in stunning costume design).