Guilt, anger, revenge. Riotous hilarity, mortal enemies, Falstaff bigger than life, Prince Hal in a hoody. Yes, it’s “Henry IV, Part One” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s intimate Thomas Theatre, to be followed in the summer by “Part Two.”
As directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, Shakespeare’s great history play, peppered with surprises, is staged in the round and set in modern times. We can almost reach out and touch the actors, and the actors certainly touch us with their electrifying emotions.
Jeffrey King is a compelling Henry, and we know how uneasy is his head that wears the crown. Henry’s son Hal is played by Daniel Jose Molina as an out-of-control adolescent rather than a fully mature young man, and this helps explain his rebellious character.
Never far from his side is the legendary trickster Falstaff, played to overstuffed perfection by G. Valmont Thomas, one of my favorite comic actors. Falstaff and Hal waste an enormous amount of time at Mistress Quickly’s disreputable tavern, drinking, dancing and spoofing the king.
But the Prince of Wales cannot be irresponsible for long. When Hal realizes his father needs him to fight by his side against contenders to the throne, he takes up arms and enlists Falstaff as well.
In battle he must face Harry Percy, a valiant warrior known as Hotspur. Percy is played in this production by a woman, Alejandra Escalante, who convincingly expresses Percy’s anger, but I never quite believed her as a seasoned soldier, or as a husband to wife Kate.
The set by Adam Rigg consists of steel poles that are sometimes lit with vibrant colors and used for pole dancing in the tavern. That is just one of many surprises in this unusual production.