Let's get straight to the point: OSF's new production of "Henry IV, Part 1" is a marvel. We're often unwilling to admit that sitting through three hours of a Shakespeare history play can be a strenuous exercise. On the night I attended, I was surrounded by a bored-looking gaggle of visiting high-schoolers, most of whom looked as though they would rather be someplace else. That sentiment didn't last very long. Out of the darkness emerged a pulsing nightclub scene, with contemporary dance music and a troupe of go-go dancers decked out in faux horse heads and pink wigs, wrestling in a kiddie-pool full of bubbles.
Out of this champagne-fueled morass emerges a decidedly hard-partying Prince Hal (Daniel Jose Molina) replete in leather pants and a gaudy couture jacket. But don't let the frivolous costuming fool you. Molina is a miraculous actor; his take on Prince Hal is a near-perfect combination of respect for the language of the Bard combined with a totally fresh and wildly entertaining piece of acting that keeps the audience riveted for the duration of the play. Molina's Hal transmogrifies from shallow party boy to soulful young royal. Having ditched the royal court in favor of a party lifestyle, Hal can't quite seem to stop himself from engaging in a high-stakes political head-game with his estranged father, King Henry (played excellently by Jeffrey King).
The contrast between the action at Hal's swinging nightclub and the more staid environment of Henry's throne room makes for a potent commentary on the different faces of power. Particularly compelling was the shift in mood seen by the young audience in attendance. They were thoroughly involved, transfixed on the action, and they stayed engaged throughout the play. It feels as though much of that enthusiasm was created as a result of Molina's thoroughly authentic and relatable performance.
The other tour de force of the evening came from G. Valmont Thomas as Sir John Falstaff. A barreling, boozy powerhouse who rollicks around the stage in a marshmallow pink suit, Thomas's Falstaff chews up the scenery and serves as the tragicomedic epicenter of the play. Falstaff is a character both ridiculous and corrupt. Thomas hammers out a performance that offers a great blend of humor and pathos. As such, Falstaff's "redemption" is all the more compelling.
In her role as Hotspur, OSF's resident ingenue Alejandra Escalante shows her range. In a spellbinding performance that is about as far from Juliet as an actor could possibly choose to be, Escalante's Hotspur is noble, fierce and purpose-driven.
A tightly coordinated ensemble cast provides a strong container for the lead actors, with a particularly hilarious turn from veteran actress Michele Mais, who, despite being mostly in the background for this show, turns out a smart piece of comedic acting whilst sporting more cleavage than the English class system.
This particular production is a strong showing for OSF as the company proves once again that they are at the head of the pack when it comes to new and vital interpretations of the canon. "Henry IV, Part 1" is an excellent evening of theater. See it as soon as possible.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 8: Story updated to correct spelling of Michele Mais' name.