Comedy and Errors

Shakespeare would eventually hone his craft to become the greatest comedian of all time. But he also spent a good deal of energy propounding his belief in the natural order: Man is above beast but subject to God. As his Wars of the Roses plays attest, most any political landscape is littered with manipulators, whiners and hotheads who either inherit the crown or are willing to usurp its mantle. And plenty of insurrectionists, playboys and oafs pretend to greatness that, to their everlasting chagrin, ultimately eludes them.

In Henry IV, Part One, for instance, a wayward Prince Hal (Michael Christian Huftile) and his wise-fool sidekick, Falstaff (Michael Kevin), nonchalantly subvert the royal code of conduct by living a sensual life unburdened by bureaucratic or moral concerns. At the same time, Hal's overbearing father, King Henry IV (Joel C. Morello), who ascended to power by deposing the hapless Richard II, is forced to deal with a challenge to his ill-gotten authority from a disgruntled former ally, Hotspur (Randy Howk). All of which is made reasonably clear in director Michael Addison's boisterous production.

Less apparent, however, are the more complex and double-edged aspects of each character's behavior. Instead of sharpening the contrasts between stately honor and right-honored knavery or weaving the play's disparate forces into a tumultuous, dissonant whole, Addison casts a two-dimensional flatness over the proceedings. As a result, Shakespeare's symphonic examination of men, politics and power resembles a hastily composed piano reduction in which all the melodic notes are played with equal value and weight. (The director also employs screeching incidental music that sounds as if it were composed for an Elizabethan version of Psycho.)

Morello, for instance, properly seizes on Henry's desire to instill discipline and obedience in his son. But rather than display kingly authority while lecturing Hal or statesmanlike restraint while addressing the court, Morello declaims and shouts his lines for much of the evening. And the veteran actor, who shines in his other role as Glendower the magician, finishes a few of Henry's gestures with a clawed hand that brings to mind Shakespeare's infamous hunchback, Richard III, instead of the strong-willed patriarch of the House of Lancaster.

None of this gives Hal much of an example to emulate. Huftile finds Hal's easy charm and fun-loving zeal, but he has difficulty conveying the more noble, elevated qualities that will, by virtue of his hard-knocks experiences with Falstaff and the boys, transform him into the heroic Henry V (who has been immortalized by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh). Huftile makes easy, inconsequential conversation of Hal's first soliloquy, for example, when the short speech should reveal a budding monarch foretelling his eventual rise to greatness.

On the opposite end of the power spectrum, Howk nails Hotspur's obtuse bluntness and thirst for revenge--and then hammers away at those qualities until we're ready for somebody, anybody, to fell him with the dullest available broadsword. That happens, of course, at the end of a sinewy battle scene that's vigorously staged by fight director Payson Burt. But instead of witnessing the quasi-tragic demise of a promising courtier with the right stuff but the wrong temperament, one feels relief at having been spared the inconsequential rantings of an irredeemable lout. And although Kevin delivers Falstaff's quick-witted observations with estimable skill, earning plenty of well-deserved laughter in the process, we're never afforded a glimpse of the desperation that underlies Falstaff's need to consort with men half his age. Or his determination to use any means necessary to protect his hanger-on status, which Hal will eventually strip from him at the end of Henry IV, Part Two (a play that is also being staged by the CSF this season).

To be sure, a number of supporting actors add texture and variety to the near-three-hour tale. Both Chan Casey and Jeremy S. Holm distinguish themselves by rendering portrayals that are arresting without becoming fixated on a single train of thought. And Allen Liu and Barbara Zahora lend some cameo-style sparkle to the otherwise soporific proceedings.

When all is (finally) said and done, an advanced degree in English history wouldn't have helped to appreciate the play's peaks and valleys; Addison has simply failed to arrange them in a manner that appeals to our intuitive understanding of the sources and responsibilities of power. Even Dennis's Three Stooges approach in The Comedy of Errors captures that much.

The Comedy of Errors and Henry IV, Part One, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through August 15 at the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, CU-Boulder, 303-492-0554.

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