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Madison Shakespeare Company has clearly chosen to play the long game with their current production, running through Feb. 17 at the Bartell Theater. The marquee and program say “Henry the Fourth.” But Bard buffs know the story of callow Prince Hal’s transformation from drunken reprobate to gleaming monarch actually has two parts to it (plus the third leg of the Henriad, “Henry V”).
The remaining parts of the story lie in MSC’s future. What we have on offer here is an adaptation of Part One, the one that bounces back and forth between the Eastcheap inn where Young Prince Harry (played by an earnest Brian McGowan) appears to be wasting his youth in the debauched company of Shakespeare’s most legendary blowhard, John Falstaff (Sam D. White) and throne rooms and battlefields, where aggrieved nobles, Scottish and otherwise, conspire to march against Harry’s dad, the titular king (Tom Kastle).
MSC loves to have fun with its Bard-ian productions—these are the purveyors of Sloshed Shakespeare, after all—and director Francisco C. Torres earns points right off the bat by having the play’s barflies and servants conduct a bawdy call-and-response ballad with the audience. It still doesn’t really help us differentiate between the Percys and the Bolingbrokes and their various grievances—frankly, nothing short of focused study and frequent repetition ever will—but it’s still a fun way to start the proceedings.
This play has always been designed for Falstaff to swipe like an unattended flagon of sack (a brandy-fortified sweet wine), and White’s more than happy to take advantage of the opportunity. This is the type of character he routinely rocks: a blowsy rogue who wheedles and blusters his way out of every scrape, consequences and the truth be damned. The scene where Hal conspires to turn a robbery into a joke at Falstaff’s expense is bust-a-gut hilarious.
In fact, White handles the role so well it actually unbalances the show. Falstaff’s outsized personality is supposed to dominate the room, but Hal needs to be a force to be reckoned with as well, and McGowan’s portrayal doesn’t quite manage it. With the two characters on unequal footing, the play’s most powerful line—when Falstaff begs Hal not to banish him when he becomes King, only to be met with a steely “I can. I will.”—loses some of its chilling impact.
There are plenty of fun performances. As Harry Percy—it doesn’t take long for us to understand why everyone calls him Hotspur—Ari Pollack glowers and rages at pieces of parchment, then gleefuly trolls Owen Glendower (Joseph Lutz), the bombastic Scottish sorcerer. Ned O’Reilly adds gravitas and solid line readings as Worcester, the most manipulative of the Percy camp conspirators, while Kastle adds just the right amount of regal style to his role. Annalyse Lapajenko is breezily charismatic as a distaff Ned Poins, providing not just a partner in crime for Prince Harry, but also a sort of romantic foil. Her character’s absent for the bulk of the second act, and the production’s wattage dims a little when she’s offstage. The gender-neutral casting also scores with Laura Kochanowski, who shows up late as a bloodthirsty, ax-wielding Douglas.
The second act features battles and more window dressing, some of which works and some of which isn’t as effective. It’s a detour to allow Mortimer’s wife (Sydney Kleinholz) to sing a lullaby in Welsh, but it’s downright beautiful and worth every second. And while there’s no shortage of swordplay to clash, clink and entertain us, some of Drew Sutherland’s fight choreography could have used honing. Let’s put it this way: The killing slash Hal deals in the ultimate battle with Hotspur doesn’t play as mortally wounding.
Eventually, Hal’s going to disown Falstaff—in brutally dramatic fashion, no less—but that’s not something we get to see here. As the bodies are carted off, the surviving principals are still friends, smiling and back-slapping. There’s more than enough here to whet our appetites for the point when those slaps turn into stabbings. It’ll be interesting to see how MSC picks things up when it’s time to rejoin and advance the story.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning coverage of the Madison theater scene for madisonmagazine.com.