Christina Vela, as Mistress Quickly, and Steven Walters, as Prince Hal, wade across waves of plywood on designer John Coyne’s set for Henry IV.
Christina Vela, as Mistress Quickly, and Steven Walters, as Prince Hal, wade across waves of plywood on designer John Coyne’s set for Henry IV.
Nan Coulter

Dallas Theater Center stages a lavish Henry IV (with a touch of Rufus Wainwright).

What Hamlet says about mothers and sons, Henry IV says about fathers (and father figures) and sons. Shakespeare's drama about medieval kings, now getting a handsome, if gimmick-strewn, production at Dallas Theater Center, presents a troubled royal son, Hal, the Prince of Wales, and his uneasy relationships with his father the king and his knockabout companion Falstaff, a fat old wheeze whose bad influence has turned Prince Hal into a drunken frat boy.

In modern terms, Henry IV begins with a young punk doing everything he can to avoid taking over the boring family business and ends with him running it. In Hal's case, it's the throne of England. His father murdered King Richard to get it and remains haunted by that act of violence and all that followed. He's also bothered by his son's behavior and that the kid has chosen Falstaff as a mentor. Henry ruminates early in the first act about riding off to the Holy Land to get away from the family squabbles and the perpetual civil wars bloodying his home turf.

Instead, King Henry (played by Kurt Rhoads) launches a new war against a rebellious northern clan, the Percys, whose hotshot son Hotspur (Paul Stuart) has qualities Henry wishes Hal had. Forced by his father to lead the British army, Prince Hal (Steven Walters) defiantly makes Falstaff (Randy Moore) the leader of a platoon of starving convicts. "They're fit enough for cannon fodder," Falstaff says. And now you know where that phrase comes from.


Henry IV

Henry IV continues through October 10 at the Wyly Theatre. Call 214-880-0202.

Henry IV, combined for the sprawling DTC version with parts of Henry IV Part II and Henry V, has a lot to say about how men, from the 15th century on, resolve disputes. Because it's Shakespeare, this show has a lot to say period. For more than three hours, when they're not engaged in swordplay, the 22 actors in Henry IV are hip deep in wordplay. Falstaff, Shakespeare's best-loved clown, is the one to listen to. Here's how he dresses down young Hal: "You starveling, you eel-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stockfish!" Oh, how the man could diss.

They all cut each other to the quick with insults and sharp blades throughout the umpteen acts of Henry IV through V—like some Elizabethan version of Tony Soprano's crew jousting for power positions. The betrayals pile up, too. After touting harmless Falstaff as "the tutor and feeder of my riots," Hal turns on him at the end. "I know thee not, old man," says the new young king, looking on as Falstaff is shuttled off to prison on his orders. That's Shakespeare at his keenest as an observer of how men act when they're in charge. A willing apprentice to Falstaff and his debauchery before, Henry V turns dark as sharks' eyes as soon as he takes over for his dead father.

You count on the acting to be first-rate at Dallas Theater Center, the city's largest and most generously funded professional theater company. For this play, one of Shakespeare's most challenging because of cast size, speech length and battle scenes, Kevin Moriarty has invited back DTC royalty of decades past to join some promising up-and-comers. As Henry IV, Rhoads, a DTC leading man in the 1980s under artistic director Adrian Hall, has a volatile chemistry with his Hal, Steven Walters, in their one-on-one scenes. They are a credible father and son and even resemble each other in their long limbs and strong profiles. Walters, so exciting in the recent Beauty Plays trilogy at DTC, achieves Hal's transition from wastrel to cutthroat ruler with subtle changes in posture and vocal heft. When he strides out in the final scene in velvet robes and white breeches, he's Shakespeare's symbol of the new post-medieval monarchy.

Among the supporting cast, Matthew Gray brings impressive authority to the role of the Earl of Worcester, and Regan Adair is a stunning and pensive Sir Richard Vernon. Chamblee Ferguson, Cedric Neal, Ricco Fajardo, Micah Figueroa, Alexander Ferguson and Beethovan Oden wear costumer Jennifer Ables' intricately sewn leather tunics and heavy-looking chainmail with regal bearing as members of King Henry's court. As tavern wench Mistress Quickly, wonderful Christina Vela has some of the funniest and saddest lines. It's she who announces Falstaff's death, describing his body "as cold as any stone." Among the secondary roles, only Paul Stuart seems unready for his part as Hotspur. He's a handsome guy, but his delivery of dialogue is flat and robotic.

Actors have to be athletes in this production, running, jumping, rolling while wielding massive steel swords. With the audience on almost all four sides of the stage in a Globe Theatre-like arrangement at the Wyly, the performers are so close you can smell the leather on their costumes. Populating the aisles and balconies, climbing up scaffolding, crawling up from beneath the stage, the actors are all over the place, even occasionally plopping down in seats and speaking asides directly to patrons. (They had no trouble finding empty seats on opening night; whole rows of the Wyly's "mean green" chairs downstairs and in the balconies sat empty.)

For this enormous show, the design team has made some puzzling choices. The costumes are as richly constructed and detailed as the wardrobe for a period film (there are bespoke leather-soled shoes or boots for every character), but the clothes seem overly elegant against the plain plywood sheets and steel scaffolds of John Coyne's scenery. Lighting by Jeff Croiter illuminates the space in warm gold, but that's all it does. Sound design by Broken Chord Collective is more interesting, with seat-shaking rumbles during battles and, if you listen carefully during King Henry's death, a high, shrill whistle can be heard, like a cold wind through chinks in castle walls.

Director Moriarty, a devourer of pop culture, can't help but inject gimmicky modern references into Shakespeare. He did it with last year's season opener, A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its pop music breaks and Keith Haring-inspired scenery, and he does it in Henry IV. As Hal realizes he'll have to grow up, Moriarty has him sing Rufus Wainwright's plaintive ballad "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk" to a simple guitar and harmonica accompaniment. Jarring, to say the least, though Walters croons nicely. Later the whole cast gathers for a rousing bit of choral harmonizing on the English hymn "Jerusalem," a reference perhaps to King Henry's wish to die there, but another anachronistic jolt.

This one will be a tough sell to all but the Shakespeare diehards, but here's the best reason to see it, even if you're Bard-shy: Randy Moore. Star of the Dallas Theater Center for more than 30 years at its original home at Kalita Humphreys Theater, Moore, now 71 and still acting in Denver, is brilliant in the role of Falstaff. Moore's performance is more than comic relief; he's the heart and soul of Henry IV. Onstage alone, talking directly to the audience, Moore is in full command, with a mastery of timing, vocal technique and movement that defines him as one of the great actors of the American stage, regional or otherwise.

"The better part of valor is discretion," says Falstaff, who, as portrayed by Moore, is the best part of this play.


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