American Players Theatre's Henry IV: The Making of a King compiles William Shakespeare's two plays about King Henry IV's struggle to wield authority over the rebellious factions of his kingdom and his own rogue son, Hal. Much to Henry's woe, the young heir to the throne prefers carousing to matters of state, hanging out at the local tavern with Sir John Falstaff, the surrogate father figure to the pack of ruffians with whom Hal consorts. But when Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, successfully launches a revolt against the King, Hal joins his father in battle and kills Hotspur. The danger averted, Hal returns to his bad-boy ways, yet is summoned again to his father, who is now fatally ill. Upon Henry's death, Hal abandons his days of debauchery and assumes the crown.
The interpretation of Henry IV as Prince Hal's personal journey to adulthood is relatively recent, and it is one by which the APT production abides. Few scenes in the play, though, are actually about Hal's relationship with his father, as compared to many others dealing with issues like loyalty, deception and honor in political matters. Although director James Bohnen describes the play as an "achingly personal and utterly timeless" tale of a clashing father and son, he can't seem to hold tight to this modern psychological reading, as several of his staging choices emphasize instead the disturbing philosophy of realpolitik Hal embraces as he becomes kingly material. His first sovereign act, for example, is to banish his former compatriots on pain of death. As the new king coldly strides away from Falstaff, forceful, sinister chords (by sound designer Lindsay Jones) accompany Hal's final transformation.
The actors are superb at delivering the Shakespearean verse with meaningful nuance. Matt Schwader plays the gallivanting Prince Hal with rakishness reminiscent of an Imperial dancer, like Swan Lake's Prince Siegfried, his body simultaneously coiled and loose in the laid-back swagger of great privilege taken for granted. Strangely, the audience found scenes in which Hotspur (David Daniel) plots revenge against Henry comedic, perhaps partly due to Bohnen's emphasis on Hal's coming-of-age as the main plot. Daniel compensates brilliantly for this potential weakening of his character by drawing out the rebel's arduous efforts to get control over his world. As Ned Poins, David Blondell has an animated repertory of expressions, which he puts to good use even when not the main focus.
Going to APT's lovely theater in the woods is a ritual: There's the longish drive past green pastures; the winding walk up the hillside; the communal spraying of the mosquito repellant; the almost imperceptible switch from natural to electric lighting; and, of course, the slow pleasure of older theatrical works that don't obey our culture's demands of speed and efficiency. Henry IV, from start to finish, is an experience you can't have in many other places: excellent art in a setting that insists that time be suspended and the theater be respected.
Henry IV: The Making of a King, American Players Theatre in Spring Green