Michael Hayden and Kevin Kline in Henry IV(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Michael Hayden and Kevin Kline in Henry IV
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Strictly in terms of staging, Jack O'Brien's Henry IV, which Dakin Matthews has adapted into one 3¾-hour script from William Shakespeare's two parts, may be the finest presentation we've yet seen at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont auditorium. Although complaints about the unwieldy size of that particular stage have abated in recent years, the problems of shrinking so much space into something manageable have continued. But now director O'Brien -- like the aggressive Prince Hal at Shrewsbury and then at Agincourt, where he becomes Henry V -- has charged into the theater with ideas about how to fill the deep, proscenium-less playing area. (O'Brien has already tested the play at San Diego's appropriately named Old Globe, where his reign as artistic director has lasted 22 years -- a reign longer than that of either Henry IV or Henry V.)

For this Manhattan remounting, O'Brien has rallied a band of creative brothers around him in the persons of set director Ralph Funicello, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, sound and original music director Mark Bennett, fight director Steve Rankin, and special effects designer Gregory Meeh. Funicello has erected large wooden scaffolding, staircases, and sliding grid-like walls that continuously change configuration to suggest castle interiors and cathedral naves. MacDevitt has lit the shifting areas tenebrously, sometimes suggesting chilled sunbeams falling through clerestory windows. Meeh has wafted mist and smoke across the floor and set sudden, darting fires hither and yon during the unusually convincing battle sequences that Rankin has choreographed. (Not for these hearties the wooden "O" in which a groundling is encouraged to rely entirely on imagination to get the big picture.) O'Brien and his gang have created a startling world wherein the actors -- outfitted with the gorgeous leather doublets, long coats, Renaissance frocks and headdresses that Jess Goldstein has supplied -- can play out Matthews's shrewd redaction of Shakespeare's Henrys. It's as invigorating a contemplation of the Bard as has ever been set before us uptown, downtown, or across town in a park.

What Dakin has noticed -- something that many others have observed recently as the age of the dysfunctional family marches on -- is that The First Part of King Henry the Fourth and The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth are analyses of fathers and sons and surrogate fathers and surrogate sons. Without discarding the court politics and internecine clashes that fascinated Elizabethan audiences who knew their history more than we know it and without carving a new drama out of two 400-year-old works, Dakin has concentrated on the seemingly profligate Harry Monmouth's shift of youthful allegiance to his scheming, furious father from that cause of wit in himself and others, Sir John Falstaff.

Richard Easton in Henry IV(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Richard Easton in Henry IV
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Shakespeare's study of relationships between these outsized characters is brilliant because he so unforgettably lays forth their psychological complexities in both poetry and prose. (Harold Bloom insists that Shakespeare created the very notion of character, a view that you either buy or you don't.) Of the four most prominent figures in the Henry plays -- Harry, Falstaff, Henry V, and Hotspur -- only the last is remotely straightforward in nature. He embraces his bellicose nature; the name Hotspur, by which Harry Percy is known, tells him who he is and must be.

Falstaff, Harry, and Henry V, on the other hand, are men of ambiguities. The speeches in which they repeatedly declare themselves underline their mercurial make-up. Falstaff discourses magnetically on honor (one of the play's recurring themes), on drink, on the preference of living however one can rather than dying valiantly. Harry indicates almost immediately that he's self-aware, is toying with Falstaff while appearing to be toyed with, and will assume his princely obligations when the time is right. The king, ever alert to the wages exacted for having usurped his throne, longs to redeem himself while sensing that his acts may be unredeemable and that his older son's behavior is tangible evidence of that reality.

In any production, of course, the play's the thing -- but the playing is also the thing. Director O'Brien, whose last local blockbuster was and is Hairspray and who has not shown any of his previous Shakespeare undertakings here, has done majestic work in this quarter as well. Since Falstaff is the linchpin of any Henry V, Kevin Kline has to be discussed first. Unrecognizable in a cloud of white hair and beard, the actor has also lowered his voice so that he never sounds Kevin Kline. What he sounds like is a convincing Falstaff, a man so cunning that he has an instantly disarming explanation for his often larcenous, frequently cowardly, and almost constantly drunk deportment. Delivering Falstaff's sumptuous speeches, Kline is equal parts conviviality and bombast. Though he might have played Falstaff's advancing years and incipient illnesses more specifically, he is the cause of wit in O'Brien's treatment -- never more so than when he and his beloved Harry entertain the Boar's Head regulars by play-acting a confrontation between Harry and his father.

Michael Hayden, compact and lithe under his fringed hair, brings a good deal of subtlety to Prince Hal, suggesting from very early on that the prankster prince is monumentally sly. Trained at Juilliard, as was Kline, he brings music to the prose exchanged with Falstaff and colleagues and to the verse exchanged with his father. Richard Easton, who's taken on the role of Henry IV for O'Brien before, misses no notes in the king's heavy tune. Authoritative and enraged when he first learns that former allies are moving against him, he fills in the royal person's deterioration and self-doubt deftly. At the end of the action, when Easton and Hayden tackle the scene where the father passes on whatever wisdom he's mustered to the son, both actors are enormously touching. In many of Shakespeare's works, the kings are arrogant fools or worse; these kings are human and, in large measure, humane.

Ethan Hawke and Byron Jennings in Henry IV(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Ethan Hawke and Byron Jennings in Henry IV
(Photo © Paul Kolnik)
Ethan Hawke's Hotspur is only partially successful. He's great with the fiery conduct but needs to pay much more attention to the voice work; this is a Hotspur who speaks the language in hot spurts. As for the others, they bring determination to their parts even when they lack persuasive accents. Dakin Matthews, not content merely to have adapted the Bard's pieces, brings gravity to his two roles. The handsome Lorenzo Pisoni makes King Henry's second son dignified and sturdy. C.J. Wilson is gruff and bluff as the Scottish Earl of Douglas; next to him, Scott Ferrera's Edmund Mortimer sounds oddly American. Steve Rankin, David Manis, Stephen DeRosa, and Ty Jones get humor out of Falstaff's Eastcheap chums, while Dana Ivey and Genevieve Elam display much spirit as Mistress Quickly and Doll Tearsheet. Audra McDonald as Lady Percy is competent but not at her usual performance level.

When Henry IV realizes that he's dying, he cries out, "Will fortune never come with both hands full?" Jack O'Brien's Henry IV comes with both hands close to full; the lengthy proceedings go by as quickly as one of Falstaff's winks.