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.
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.
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.