By Dr. John Brett Mischko, Professor and Chair
Department of English, Humanities, and Languages
Southeastern Oklahoma State University
Durant’s own Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival opened its production of Henry IV, parts I & II on Wednesday night in Montgomery Auditorium on the Southeastern campus. It’s the story of a people rebelling against its king and a son rebelling against his father. Shakespeare’s play dramatizes the political consequences of Henry’s usurpation of the throne from the previous king, Richard II.
With its ruler’s authority weakened, England finds itself torn by factional contention and ultimately civil war. Mirroring the political struggle, Shakespeare dramatizes the personal conflict between King Henry and his son and heir apparent to the throne, Prince Hal (also known as Harry, or by his given name, Henry). The king is painfully disappointed in his son’s dissolute ways. Instead of conducting himself in ways appropriate to England’s future monarch, Hal spends his time in taverns consorting with drunks, thieves, and prostitutes. Hal is faced with the test of his life. Will he make good on his vow to reform and refashion himself as worthy his royal status? Can he earn his kingdom’s and his father’s respect?
In the title role, David Millstone wonderfully captures King Henry’s transformation from the strong, commanding ruler to a frail, mortal human. He handles well his character’s sense of guilt and his loosening grip on power and even reality.
As Prince Hal, Benjamin Cole admirably creates his character’s own difficult to portray transformation from irresponsible carouser to legitimate figure of authority. This is particularly well-achieved in the play’s final, disturbing scene when the prince denounces his former boon companions. This role calls for an actor with the skills necessary to handle both Shakespeare’s high drama and low-brow slapstick, and Cole meets that challenge.
The most compelling character of the play is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most popular creations – Sir John Falstaff.
This lazy, fat, loveable rogue is the prince’s best friend and a knight more at home on a barstool than a battlefield. Falstaff has no redeeming qualities whatsoever besides his love for life. And Charles Prosser perfectly embodies this character’s overwhelming physical presence and verbal wit. Anyone who is already familiar with this character will find in Prosser’s performance the Falstaff they have always imagined, right there on stage. Prosser’s Falstaff looks, moves, laughs, and talks perhaps exactly as Shakespeare intended him to. His role-playing scene with the prince is a dramatic highlight of the show.
As a counterpoint to the play’s battle scenes, the tavern scenes are driven by the talents of several actors. Especially enjoyable are the performances of Rebecca Riisness and Jennifer Drew. Others playing roles here include Rebecca Blackmore, Eric Czuleger, Regan McLellan, Dustin Napier, Phoenix Ortlip, Chris Page, and Adam Smith. Other roles in the political plot are played by Brian Hendricks, Joshua Buehler, Michaela Madison, Todd Patterson, Reece Roark, Rachel Joslin, Whitney Elliott, Annie Mitchell, Mike Battiest, Chase Jackson, and John Keenan.
Director / Adaptor Paul B. Crook successfully evokes the uncontrollable chaos and subtle politicking typical of any war. His abridging and splicing of the two plays deftly manages to delete scenes from the original while maintaining effective dramatic timing. Crook modernizes the play with elements of modern dress (camo soldier’s uniforms) that point to the play’s current timeliness. The decision to use two large video screens atop the setting to adds another contemporary feel to the production.
A CNN style reporter (impressively done by Liz Vosmeier as the character Rumour) appears on the screens intermittently to update the audience on developing “news.” Vintage black and white 20th century war footage heightens the reality of the battles onstage for a modern audience.
The Scenic Designer is James Cunningham and Costume Designer is Cassandra Paine. Assistant Costume Designer is Alexander J. Poynor. Lighting Designer is Noah Crissman. The Properties Designer is Patricia Talavera and the Sound Designer is C. Matthew White. The Stage Manager is Leigh Anne Chambers and the Fight Choreographer is Mark D. Guinn.
The Renaissance Singers, directed by Dr. Stacy Weger, beautifully deliver period song pieces before the show and during intermission. The group includes Jocelyn Batts, Courteney Beazer, Clifford Cox, Beth Helm, Sara Hudson, Courtney Johnson, and Matt Rizzo.
Henry IV will be performed again on Friday, July 11 at 7:30, on Sunday July 13 at 2:00, and on Thursday, July 17at 7:30. All performances are in the Montgomery Auditorium of the Morrison Building on the Southeastern campus. For ticket information call the OSF Box Office at (580) 745-2696.