Before Luke Skywalker becomes a man, he started out hanging out with an old man and a pack of ne’r do wells in a crap bar while his dad and more useful sibling were out there ruling the universe. George Lucas snagged a page from Shakespeare and made it his own into the form we know and love today. The Rude Mechanicals have taken this tumultuous two-part history of Henry IV about life, death, responsibility, and consequences, and shaped it into a fast-moving, rollicking tale full of heart and panache but without the Jar Jar.
The setting is sparse but multifunctional; this aptly splits the stage into a light side and a dark side. A table and chairs mark the addlepated crowd at Mistress Quickly’s (Jaki Demarest) speakeasy’s home turf. Where the king of the moment is Sir John Falstaff (Wayne de Cesar), and Prince Hal (Evan Ockershausen) is the jester. Like a drunken Obi Wan Kenobi, Falstaff regales the crew of his fictional exploits pointedly marred by arrogant if accurate jabs from Hal.
All in all a good time is had and some of Shakespeare’s greatest insults are hurled with aplomb and fluidity. With a fluid shift in lighting by designer Jeff Poretsky, the other side of the stage refocuses the audience’s attention on the regal King Henry IV, (Sam David) who wrestles with her son Hal’s foolish youth while juggling the galling demands of Henry Percy “Hotspur” (Erin MacDonald), Worcester (Melissa Schick), and Northumberland (Carol Calhoun). At the ready with reactions that perfectly assess the mood in the room is Lancaster (Rebecca Korn).
David gives a strong and nuanced performance as the titular character drawing the audience into her struggle of ruling and being a parent facing the end of her life. This push and pull across the stage builds as the act’s momentum comes to a spectacular climax when Hal faces his demons and his responsibilities at the same time. Ockershausen shows great depth throughout the play but really shines in the battle and aftermath of facing Percy. MacDonald hits all the high notes of a passionate and disparate man, never holding back even in her last moments. Schick’s Worcester is sly and devilish with an understated smile that grimly defines her plotting and scheming.
Demarest and de Cesar are forces of nature on the stage capturing character and audience with deep, emotional potency and skill not to be missed. Calhoun’s Northumberland rages, eyes closed to the world and gripping the audience with a clenched decisiveness that cements her convictions. The supporting cast is strong and playful: Poins (Charlie Green), Bardolph (Ray Wallis), Doll (Maureen Dawson), Gadshill (Lynda Clark), and the set-chewing Sheriff (Eric Honour) fill the play with all too human reactions as each deals with the situation at hand with considerable skill and variety.
Joshua Engel, as the show’s Director, and Liana Olear, the Assistant Director, have shaped this script into a laser-point that penetrates the layers of the play without burning away the greatness. There is a hint of Gatsby in the theme, music, and costumes (appropriated by Trevor Jones) but it is understated and overpowered by the performances of the cast. They could have been wearing burlap sacks and it would still move the heart. Nothing feels out of place, and the flow of the story is so solid that it never feels muddled or congested.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one intermission
Henry IV Parts I & II plays through June 18, 2016 with The Rude Mechanicals at Highwood Theatre’s Black Box Space— 914 Silver Spring Avenue St. #102 in Silver Spring, MD. Tickets are available for purchase at the door or in advance online.