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The actors with experience propel Arizona Rep's 'Henry IV' to success

With no disrespect to the students peopling the University of Arizona's production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, it's faculty members who make the shows surge and sing.

Brent Gibbs and Harold Dixon direct with sureness and sensitivity to character. Gibbs is in charge of Part 1, directing the climactic battle scenes with his expected aplomb even while maintaining a sense of gravity and ceremony in the dialog sequences. (Oddly, the violence is nonexistent in the comic scenes where characters are supposed to give each other light thrashings.) Dixon handles Part 2 with less physicality, acutely sensitive to the subtleties and complexities of the character relationships.

The two roles hardest for young thespians to put across are taken by actors with experience that shows, both of whom teach in the UA theater department. Kevin Black is a truly regal, centered, often mournful Henry IV, relishing his every word and investing each line with meaning. D. Lance Marsh is superb as Sir John Falstaff, the plays' fat, drunk, scheming force of relatively benign disorder.

More about them and the not inconsiderable work of the other leading players anon. First, some background.

The two plays can easily stand alone (especially with the little flashback Dixon inserts at the beginning of Part 2), but, like the elements of Lord of the Rings, they work best as part of a trilogy (ending with Henry V)--perhaps with the prequel Richard II and the spinoff comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor for extra credit.

In a period of intermittent civil war, English King Henry IV is remorseful for his crime of usurping his predecessor, yet he is undeniably the better, more decisive monarch. His efforts to put down rebellions against his rule play in counterpoint to the initially more comic story of his eldest son. This Prince Hal consorts with lowlife cronies, drinks to excess and is at least peripherally involved in robbery; all this, he maintains early in the first play, is a calculated effort to make his apparent change of character upon assuming the crown seem all the more impressive. Hal does indeed prove himself in battle, reconciles with his father and rejects his dissolute former companions.

Part 1 boasts tighter action; Shakespeare treads water through the first half of Part 2, but takes time to develop his characters, particularly Falstaff.

Part 1 climaxes with the victory of the king's forces at the Battle of Shrewsbury and Hal's acceptance of greater responsibility; Part 2 completes Hal's story, but only after further consolidation of his father's authority and long digressions following the misadventures of Falstaff. Poignantly, the fat knight senses his own mortality, even as Henry IV himself slowly wastes away (from wounds in battle, as this production has it). It's a play about honor and disgrace, order and riot, the maturing of a young man and the deaths of two elders, the rejection of one father figure and the embrace of another.

Falstaff is the Hamlet of Shakespearean comedy, a complex, sly, flawed, word-besotted failure, a potential threat to the status quo, fascinating and compelling from beginning to end. Marsh has the full measure of the man, bellowing and cocksure and playing to any audience at hand, yet not so committed to fart jokes that he misses the moments of sadness and regret in Part 2. Marsh gives us a Falstaff of bellicose subtlety, if you can imagine such a thing.

Black, meanwhile, delivers not only King Henry's lines, but his soul; his measured but fluid cadences issue from the depths of what can sometimes seem a rather static role.

As Prince Hal, Clay Froning certainly holds his own. He's a boyish prankster trying to keep his better nature at bay; on opening night of Part 1, Froning took a while to warm to his role, but he grew stronger with the rise of Hal's conflicting emotions.

His pal Ned Poins is here played as a woman, although, oddly, she's still referred to as "he" throughout the plays. There's no homosexual subtext here; Poins is clearly female, even appearing at one point wrapped in a bedsheet that makes plain her feminine contours. She's played with gamine vivacity by the always eye-catching Shawna Cormier, the best listener and reactor the UA has had onstage in a long time.

Dane Corrigan shows an easy gift for Shakespearean language as Hotspur, the young rebel, and Sarah Hayes makes an excellent impression as his wife.

Patrick Holt's sometimes opulent costumes keep the characters anchored firmly in the Middle Ages; Peter Beudert's scenic design is bare-bones and abstract, but makes fine use of elements rising out of the floor. The sound, designed by Melissa Marquis with music by way of Lani Elston-Marshall, supports the onstage feeling of menace exceptionally well, although it makes little effect in the comic scenes. This is a dark, autumnal vision of Henry IV, much more the stories of the king and of Falstaff than of the blossoming Prince Hal. For springtime, we'll just have to wait for the UA to get around to Henry V.

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