Thursday, January 27, 2022 Jan 27, 2022
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Actors Randy Moore, Stephen Walters Carry Dallas Theater Center’s Enjoyable Henry IV

The Dallas Theater Center’s production of Henry IV offers some great acting, effective staging, compelling action sequences, and a generous dollop of laughter, but its real accomplishment is just how ably the two plays that make up Shakespeare’s two-part history about the rise of Henry V have been distilled into a single work. Henry IV was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his own lifetime, so much so that the bard wrote a sequel to the initial work. The first play culminates with Henry IV’s son Hal (the future Henry V) killing the revolutionary leader (and Hal’s peer) Hotspur in battle. The second part sees Hal rising to the throne after the death of his father, and both plays are, in part, concerned with the unorthodox education of the future king. At the play’s opening, he is a philanderer and a drunk, abandoning the royal court for the taverns of London, where he indulges in a smattering of pleasures along with other wayward sons of rich nobleman, poor louts, and loose women. This setting also provides Shakespeare with his most lovable character: Sir John Falstaff.
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The Dallas Theater Center’s production of Henry IV offers great acting, effective staging, compelling action sequences, and a generous dollop of laughter, but its real accomplishment is just how ably the two plays that make up Shakespeare’s two-part history about the rise of Henry V have been distilled into a single work.

Henry IV was the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays during his own lifetime, so much so that the bard wrote a sequel to the initial work. The first play culminates with Henry IV’s son Hal (the future Henry V) killing the revolutionary leader (and Hal’s peer) Hotspur in battle. The second part sees Hal rising to the throne after the death of his father, and both plays are, in part, concerned with the unorthodox education of the future king. At the play’s opening, he is a philanderer and a drunk, abandoning the royal court for the taverns of London, where he indulges in a smattering of pleasures along with other wayward sons of rich nobleman, poor louts, and loose women. This setting also provides Shakespeare with his most lovable character: Sir John Falstaff.

For the Dallas production, DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty has distilled both plays into one three-act work, setting the death of Hotspur at the end of the second act, and wrapping Henry IV, Part 2 into a single act. As a result, much of the original text is left on the cutting room floor, and some characters are reduced to bit parts – most notably Hal’s brother, Prince John. But Moriarty’s rendering, with its careful staging, quick pacing, and due attention to key speeches, allows the Henry’s twin climaxes to retain most of their dramatic resonance.

Henry IV is a play that rests largely on the shoulders of Hal and Falstaff, and Stephen Walters and Randy Moore rise to the task. This is Randy Moore’s show to steal and, in Friday’s performance, he nearly did. It is not just that Moore brings an enjoyable, boisterous comic timing and delivery, using his girth and contorting his face to achieve the charm and wit Shakespeare wrote into the character. The trick in portraying Falstaff is lending the right emphasis to the proposition of the worldview that is hidden beneath the character’s one-liners and bawdy humor. Always a line away from a joke, Moore manages to lend an existential gravity to Falstaff. A particular diatribe on honor, a brief paragraph in Shakespeare’s text, shines forth as one of the great humanistic moments in the Dallas production, hilarious, but also puzzling and troubling.

As Hal, it falls to Stephen Walters to keep the play from becoming the Falstaff comedy show. He brings to Hal the perfect mix of gusto and angst, playing the role like a smart-aleck frat boy who flashes moments of depth that build to the final moving scenes with his father. If Moore doesn’t steal the show, it’s because Walters is able to remind us that this is a drama about his character’s evolution.

While Henry IV contains nothing like last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s flamboyant theatrics (unfortunately, no throne-room dance parties), the play does bear the mark of director Kevin Moriarty’s populism. A contemporary pop song is thrown in; the sword play is trumped up and supported with the double-bass pounding of a heavy metal track; and the whole performance moves at breakneck pace. At times in the first act, the production’s speed causes the staging to feel busy and haphazard, but as the play settles down, the quick-footed tempo becomes a strength. Many scenes start before the previous scenes have finished, which, practically speaking, is one way Moriarty is able to squeeze so much drama into an overall length that comes in just under the threshold for Shakespearean saturation. But this scenic overlap also creates some interesting moments, juxtaposing speech, characters, and action to draw out themes or create references.

For example, towards the end of the play, when Henry IV is on his death bed, and Hal is mulling the prospect of his impending coronation, his cohorts from the bar remain in the shadows of the stage, sleeping or strumming guitars. With his staging, Moriarty is reemphasizing their role in the shaping of his understanding of the world and his own soul. The perpetual proximity of these lowlifes throughout Hal’s rise to the throne adds to the dramatic punch packed by Falstaff’s twist of fate. Continuing to play on doubles, Moriarty shows great sensitivity in his staging of the funerals of Falstaff and Henry IV. The pall bearers emerge from opposite sides of the stage, each with one pine box, harmonizing with each other in Gregorian chant across the boards in a particularly beautiful and moving moment.

John Coyne’s staging supports Moriarty’s constant flow of actors and scenes primarily by staying out of the way. For the production, the ever-changing Wyly is construed as a theater-in-the-round, with the audience surrounding a stage made of long, undulating strips up plywood that rise off the ground as they recede from the stage front, abutting scaffolding that surrounds the entire theater. The setting is sparse, but interesting to look at, while providing its own metaphoric reading of the text with its dips and rises – ample space for actors to seize high ground or hide in the minimal set’s nooks and crannies.

Photo: (from left) Randy Moore, Christie Vela, and Stephe Walters in Henry IV (Photo by Nan Coulter for the Dallas Theater Center).