NEW YORK, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- If there is one performance that demands to be seen on the New York stage this season it is Kevin Kline's deeply conceived characterization of Shakespeare's tosspot philosopher Falstaff in a production that combines the two "Henry IV" plays into one seamless four-hour drama now playing at Lincoln Center's Beaumont Theater.
Often played as a roguish buffoon or a drunken sybarite, Falstaff has been waiting for an actor with Kline's magical touch to transform him into a character of immense dimension who is at once wise, disrespectful, generous, decadent, mirthful, wicked, and loving, certainly the most human of all Shakespeare's creations. It seems like a role that Kline, often criticized for his lack of restraint, was born to play.
Kline's genius, however, is to avoid making Falstaff an untidy, blustering bore with a big belly and a white beard. Instead he gives a restrained performance that presents the old knight as a man with a hint of former dignity, childlike in his lack of guilt, joyful in his zest for living, and most certainly not a clown.
This is a Falstaff for an audience to love and therefore to feel more deeply his hurt when he is dismissed as mentor by Prince Hal, the son he never had, at the end of the play. Kline never allows Falstaff to run away with the production, but he steals it all the same.
Dakin Matthews' brilliant condensation of "Henry IV Parts I and II," first staged in San Diego eight years ago, eliminates some scenes, changes the sequence of others, and does much to bring Falstaff to the fore although there are lengthier roles in this fresh concept titled simply "Henry IV."
Credit must also be given to director Jack O'Brien, last season's Tony Award winner for "Hairspray," who has drawn vivid performances from the entire all-star cast. Condensing the Henry IV plays makes practical sense these days when no theater is likely to commit itself to staging both plays and a large number of theater-goers are unlikely to commit themselves to two evenings in the theater to see Parts I and II.
It is interesting to note that these plays were compressed into one as early as 1622 and there is a manuscript in a British collection to prove it.
These are the greatest of all of the Bard's historical plays, tracing the Lancastrian usurper King Henry IV's involvement in betrayal and civil war in his attempt to hold onto the English throne in the late 14th century.
He is deeply disappointed in Prince Hal, his firstborn son and prince of Wales, who prefers to while away his time in the bawdy company of Falstaff and his friends rather than stay at court and learn the rudiments of power politics. Henry would prefer Hal to be more like Henry "Hotspur" Percy, a deadly serious young contender for the throne with a rebel's driving talent for leadership.
When the king dies and Hal ascends the throne as Henry V, he contemptuously turns his back on Falstaff who expects to reap rich rewards from his affectionate friendship with the young prince whom he even engaged in a masked robbery of some travelers. But Hal is the model prodigal son, rising to the occasion offered him by his father's death and revealing his true nature as a pragmatic prince bent on a heroic reign.
Richard Easton achieves a towering and surprisingly sympathetic characterization of Henry IV, a monarch torn between guilt and determination to found a dynasty, and Michael Hayden discovers complexities often overlooked in Hal, reinforcing the reputation he gained as one of the stage's most remarkable young actors when he played Billy Bigelow in Lincoln Center's "Carousel" several seasons ago.
Ethan Hawke makes Henry Percy a high-keyed somewhat unlikable young hothead in a non-traditional but engrossing performance that is more contemporary than those being given by his fellow cast members, but he is never boring. Audra McDonald, a three-time Tony Award winner best known as a singer, is delightfully spirited as Percy's wife and is at her best in the mourning scene, and Dana Ivey is coarsely amusing as the tavern owner, Mistress Quickly.
Ralph Funicello's rough-hewn set, one of the most successful from the viewpoint of perspective ever mounted on the Beaumont Theater stage, serves equally well as a throne room, a battlefield, and a tavern's upstairs bedroom, and Brian McDevitt's shadowy lighting does much to make these transformations possible. Jess Goldstein's period costumes are not over-rich but elegantly effective, and Mark Bennett has provided some pleasant original music in the Elizabethan mode.