Review: Henry IV Takes Audiences for a Brisk Walk in the Park

New York Classical Theatre’s 25th anniversary season offers a condensed version of Shakespeare’s two-part history.

Briana Reeves Gibson, Carine Montebrand, Ian Antal, and John Michalski appear in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Stephen Burdman, for New York Classical Theatre.
(© Miranda Arden)

Overlooking a gorgeous pond in Central Park, the characters of Henry IV dart around and between audience members during the New York Classical Theatre’s 25th anniversary production. One character tells the audience, “We will stay here. You go that way” and points to a spot over a hill. The audience hurries to find a seat on a lawn chair, blanket, or just a spot on the grass. This version of Henrry IV doesn’t just happen in the park; the audience goes to six different locations to watch the actors party, go to war, and make amends. It’s an effect that matches the swiftness of a production that turns a slightly tedious Shakespearean history into a jaunty and pleasant two-hour excursion.

Henry IV not only sacrifices tension for the sake of “accuracy” but, like the upcoming Wicked movie, is unnecessarily drawn out into two parts. This adaptation, which is a combination of Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two, smartly retains the most engaging aspects of both plays while jettisoning the tedious bits.

King Henry (Nick Salamone) has a crown that sits “troublesome” on his head. He feels guilty about becoming king after the murder of Richard II, which he takes responsibility for. Perhaps because of that unease, he has difficultly preventing his former allies from forming a coalition against him. Hotspur (Damian Jermaine Thompson) and his father (Juan Luis Acevedo), scorned by Henry in various ways, join forces with a Welshman named Owen Glendower (Ian Gould) to take down the king and divide up England and Wales for themselves.

King Henry wishes he had his son Hal (Ian Antal) by his side to help. Instead, Hal is cavorting around England with his best buddy Falstaff (John Michalski), a drunken lout who is easily one of Shakespeare’s most humorous and beloved characters. Michalski shines in this role: finding every comedic beat and giving humorous asides to the audience, but not turning Falstaff into a caricature. This production was wise to lean into his scenes and highlight the character’s delicious wordplay.

Carine Montebrand and John Michalski in New York Classical Theatre’s Henry IV © Miranda Arden
Carine Montebrand plays Mistress Quickly, and John Michalski plays Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, directed by Stephen Burdman, for New York Classical Theatre.
(© Miranda Arden)

Another high point is the focus on the two sons, Hal and Hotspur, whose character differences feed a rivalry between their fathers and themselves. Early on, Hotspur and his compatriots’ plan for rebellion is mirrored by a ridiculous prank set up by Prince Hal and his friend Poins (Anique Clements). Hal and Hotspur don’t interact in person until the major battle near the end of the play, so these first scenes do heavy lifting to establish their characters and make the audience care about their rivalry.

It’s lucky that these characters are portrayed by very fine actors. Thompson brings the necessary fire to Hotspur, commanding attention even with occasional distractions in the park. Antal gives a similarly enthralling performance as the jovial and carefree Hal, later turned righteous king. Hal’s transformation from ne’er-do-well to committed leader might have gotten lost in this literally quick-footed production, but Antal makes sure to find and draw out the transformative moments that mark Hal’s evolution. I marveled at how he continued to pray over Hotspur’s dead body, conveying the character’s understanding of the gravity of what he had done, as the audience dashed from one scene to another. It’s a crucial moment that some may miss.

That raises the major drawback of director Stephen Burdman’s production: It sometimes moves too quickly between scenes. Some start before the majority of the audience had sat down in the new location. A short time for the actors to play between scenes would give the audience more time to get settled. For example, I enjoyed watching Hal and Poins react to a wailing ambulance and vamping until it passed before starting a new scene, and I would have appreciated more of this kind of breathing room built in.

As the play’s subject gets darker, so do our surroundings, until the final scenes are performed in darkness. Crew members with flashlights provide the only illumination. It’s an appropriate effect for a play that considers the darker side of having won the game of thrones. Henry IV is a zippy evening of theater that balances light and dark and takes audiences on a captivating adventure.


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