Sir John Falstaff (Gregory Burgess) spends his ill-gotten gains at the Boar’s Head tavern with friends. / Photo by C. Stanley Photography / Courtesy Chesapeake Shakespeare Company

Walking in to see Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” plays at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, you may think that it is appropriate for plays featuring the bawdy Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters,  to be performed so close to the city’s bawdy-houses on the Block, where Falstaffian hawkers hustle customers off the sidewalk a block away.

But, upon leaving, you may think it more appropriate that Chesapeake’s beautiful theater is a stone’s throw from City Hall—or should be now called it City Holly?—and the BPD headquarters. Because, while the two “Henry IV” plays are papered over with earthy banter, they are about power and the ways it changes the people who have and who want it.

Yes, there is the central, famous transformation of Hal, the dissolute prince who spends his time in the taverns, into the severe King Henry V, who will eventually order a massacre at Agincourt. But he is far from the only character changed by power. And even the delightful scenes of Prince Hal’s wasted youth serves to show how the underworld was affected by proximity to his future puissance. Everyone is driven mad by power.

Here’s the super-quick basic plot summary for both parts: A rebellion is brewing against King Henry IV, (Ron Heneghan) who was planning to go take back Jerusalem from the “pagans” but has to stay home to fight the rebels, led by Hotspur (Gerrad Alex Taylor). The rebels are the very people who helped Henry rise to power—see the Richard plays—but now that he is wielding it as he will, they are pissed.

Hotspur, also named Harry Percy, is a total bad-ass. Righteous and angry, he was gaining glory on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Henry IV’s own son Harry, called Hal (Seamus Miller), is a disgrace, living a dissolute life among a band of rogues led by John Falstaff (Gregory Burgess), one of Shakespeare’s great creations. But once war is certain, Hal turns himself around and saves his father’s life on the battlefield and improbably kills Hotspur in a battle of the Harrys—leaving Falstaff to try to take credit for it.

That’s Part 1. In Part 2, which is a far weaker play, there is a beautiful scene between Northumberland and Lady Percy (Elana Michelle), Hotspur’s widow, who convinces him to head for the hills in Scotland. The rebellion is then commanded by the Archbishop of York (Nello DeBlasio). Hal’s brother Prince John (DJ Batchelor) tricks them and puts down the rebellion. King Henry is sick. Falstaff lives off the glory of claiming to have killed Percy. Hal and his father have a final intense conversation just before Henry IV dies and Hal becomes Henry V. Convinced by the Chief Justice, he rencounces Falstaff, who had hoped to get in on the graft of power. It ends with a dark hint that the only way to truly quell internal dissent is to undertake a foreign war (see “Henry V”).

The Chesapeake productions are characterized by an earthy simplicity. The costumes do not try to be contemporary, but their understatedness would make them more at home in Station North than at a Renaissance Fair.

While they avoid the countless temptations to modernize the stories—replacing swords with guns etc.—Shakespeare always invades our contemporary context. Remember the furor last year when Trumpian apologists claimed that a performance of “Julius Caesar” was calling for the assassination of our dictat-er president?

But, to watch the play in 2019 Baltimore, which the cover of the New York Times Magazine declared an unraveling “tragedy,” will inevitably bring its own associations. This became particularly clear to me in a sort of hallucinatory scene in Part 1, when Hal, Falstaff, and the crew of Eastcheap thieves plans to rob a group of passing pilgrims. Then Ned Poins (Lance Bankerd) pulled the prince aside and proposed a different plan.

“I have a jest to execute that I cannot
manage alone. Falstaff, Bardolph, Peto and Gadshill
shall rob those men that we have already waylaid:
yourself and I will not be there; and when they
have the booty, if you and I do not rob them, cut
this head off from my shoulders.”

So they wait for Falstaff and his crew to do the robbery and, wearing masks, rob him in turn.

This kind of double cross is precisely the kind of thing you could hear, a year ago, in a different sort of theater a mile or so away at the Federal Court on Lombard Street where Donny Stepp, the co-conspirator of GTTF mastermind Wayne Jenkins, recounted similar plans that he and Jenkins had made at various times. In one case, after Jenkins arrested a drug dealer and got the address of a house where guns and money were stashed, he stalled his own crew so that Stepp could get there and rob the house first. In another instance, Jenkins, who other cops called the “Prince of the City,” waited for people looting pharmacies during the riot on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral and then stole the drugs and brought them to Stepp.

The reason that all of this struck me so forcefully was because Bankerd as Poins had the bald head, grinning eyes, and wild enthusiasm of Stepp, who played for Jenkins a role quite similar to the role Poins played for the Prince. It was startling how similar it was, as if Bankerd were trying to make the allusion to Stepp, subtly (if you’ve only seen his mug shot, Stepp did not look nearly so bad on the witness stand in a dapper suit, so don’t look at that mug shot and feel bad, Bankerd). Bankerd played the part so well that it bounced right up against our own reality and the history of crime and corruption in our far more recent history, whether he intended it to or not.

Hal responds to Poins with a kind of detached enjoyment. He is carried away by the prank, but all of this is a prank for him because the consequences are far less serious for him. He is always doubled. Miller plays this version of Henry well, always a bit restrained, never letting his co-conspirators know exactly what he is thinking, always speaking in double-entendres and witticisms that can be read in more than one manner. This is part of Shakespeare’s comic genius on display in this tragedy, but it also says a lot about the nonchalant ways that power can be wielded so that the lives of others seem no more than a game to those who remain insulated by privilege wherever they go.

This ostentatious reserve, as it were, hits on another touchstone for any Gen-X viewer of this play: Miller’s Harry seems much indebted to Keanu Reeves in “My Own Private Idaho,” where he plays out the modernized transformation of Prince Hal into Henry V. Reeves’ wet-blanketed debauchery captures the character so well that it has almost entirely re-defined the role, to the point where the actual contemporary Prince Harry of England seems like an imitation of the actor.  

Miller’s two-faced affectlessness works all the way up to the pivotal moment at the very end of Part 2, when, as a character, Hal makes the transformation forcefully. As an actor, though, Miller falls slightly short. His Henry is not imperious enough by half. His rebuke of Falstaff is muted, muttered almost. Perhaps that was a choice, a way to play it, and it could be a smart one. A Henry still embarrassed by the necessities of the state. For that to work, the reluctance would have to be a bit more obvious.

I caught the double-feature, which was opening night of Part 2 and perhaps Miller hadn’t had the opportunity to develop that part of his character fully. He’d also had to go through all of that in one day and so perhaps the mutedness of the ascension will pass, as the show progresses into a full-blown rebuke and an acceptance of power.

The other striking and instructive parallel was accompanied by a transformation not unsimilar to that from Hal to Henry. Gerrad Alex Taylor played Hotspur with a true, unbridled fury in Part 1. He embodied ambition as anger or anger as ambition better than any Shakespearean actor I’ve ever seen. And, partly because he is black, he showed me how much the Erik Killmonger plot of Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie is based on the Hotspur arc of these plays. And, even moreso than in “Black Panther,” it raises the one false note: there’s no way that this Hal beats this Hotspur in a fight. But because no one in either drama thinks the prince has it in him to win, either, it makes it work—no one in the play believes it either.

The death of Hotspur allows Taylor to co-direct the second play, making, in a sense, the same transformation as Hal. And it is a hard transformation, because Part 2 is a weak play in many ways. The first half could be condensed and recapped in a single speech. But Taylor and Ian Gallagher, who directed Part 1, do a fine job at helping the weaker play stand up to its predecessor. That usually only works if the transformation from Hal to Henry and the renunciation of Falstaff is total and brutal. In this case it was not. And Gregory Burgess as a funny and fulsome Falstaff may not yet have been able to bring the full resonance of feeling to his disappointment in the scene, either. Again it was first performance of “Part 2”—and Falstaff, so vital on the page, is exceedingly hard to bring to life. It is not that difficult to do Falstaff, so finely written, passingly well, but near impossible to make him organic and alive. Like Miller as Hal, Burgess comes close, but seemed to fall slightly short of the emotional range required by the final scene.

Even without that, the Chesapeake team really brought off the double header, and, I suspect the emotional nuances of the characters in “Part 2” will develop over the coming weeks.

There are still a couple double-headers, on March 23 and 30. It is really quite an experience to devote the better part of a day to inhabiting this world, a kind of public binge watching with a big dinner in between. And it was that kind of binging on the Bard that had me back out on Calvert Street staring up at the stately dome of City Hall and simply shaking my head.

The crimes that define a time are sometimes bloody and fierce, while at others, they are pure farce. Imagine the play about Pugh renouncing Healthy Holly. How now.

Henry IV Part 1, through March 30. Henry IV Part 2, through April 7. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. 7 S. Calvert St.

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