Bard Games

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To be sure, the actors' yeoman efforts to evoke patriotic sentiment are admirable, but they don't inject much true-to-life feeling into this story about the wayward Prince Hal (Michael Huftile), his dying father, Henry IV (Joel C. Morello) and the roguish Falstaff (Michael Kevin). As in the CSF's production of Henry IV, Part One (which is also directed by Addison), the characters' major traits are emphasized to the point that the drama's conflicts become simplistic, when the task of making everyday decisions--such as following the most effective leader, choosing the right point of attack and reconciling one's defeats in life--is complicated. Indeed, the sixty or so characters in this richly detailed tapestry shouldn't come off, as many do here, like two-dimensional barbarians who would slaughter each other at the first batting of an eyelash. Nor should they bellow and mug through a conversation for the sake of earning a cheap laugh or two from their toothless sidekicks. That treatment works well enough for a handful of minor characters, many of whom are decently interpreted by the exuberant cast. But most of the major players are courtiers, churchmen and clever hangers-on who, like so many life-sized termites, chew through the byzantine social structure of the Lancastrian court until its proverbial pillars are poised to collapse.

Part of the problem is that Addison stresses a few textual elements while ignoring others. For example, rather than portray the character of Rumor as "painted full of tongues," as is indicated in the script, Addison chooses to have a raspy-voiced, bent-backed peasant woman mutter the play's prologue. Though seemingly minor, that decision substantially alters the tone of the play from the very first line. Instead of depicting the systematic deterioration of a kingdom that's crippled by "surmises, jealousies [and] conjectures," Addison focuses on a realm wracked by physical ailments and material concerns.

And even if that literal approach is the director's way of foreshadowing Henry's sickbed demise and Hal's invigorating ascent, it nonetheless undermines Shakespeare's larger theme about the temperament, moral sense and, yes, physical prowess that all determine one's fitness for kingship. In fact, nowhere does Addison's touch seem more infectiously false than during the deathbed reconciliation scene that occurs between Hal and his father, one of the greatest father-son scenes that Shakespeare ever wrote (the Dover Cliffs episode between Gloucester and Edgar in King Lear is similarly moving). As staged by Addison, though, Morello's Henry seems resigned to die as painful a death as possible instead of fighting against the weight of his ailments, while Huftile's Hal seems content to wander in and stare at his bedridden patriarch; both should exude greater ambivalence as well as a nobler fighting spirit when faced with such a monumental, life-changing moment.

Furthermore, rather than resist the impulse to weep (or take his cue from the text, which indicates that the heroic Hal goes into an adjoining room to cry out his grief in private near the end of the scene), Huftile blubbers his way through Hal's lines, while Morello wheezes and speechifies through a tongue-lashing of his favorite son that should sound more like a heart-to-heart plea. As a result of the actors' ill-advised emoting, there's not much quiet grandeur to be had when Hal receives the crown from his father's trembling hands, just a rudimentary passing of the torch that hardly seems divinely inspired. Nor is Hal's final dismissal of Falstaff as poignant and contrapuntal a moment as it's intended to be. Instead of treating his former drinking buddy with a formal, carefully considered compassion, Huftile handles the first challenge to Hal's royal authority by delivering a stern, cold rebuke to the now-servile Kevin, who in turn abruptly abandons Falstaff's Epicurean ways and sinks in a sea of contrived Addisonian emotion.

For the second year in a row, the CSF has presented a mediocre season of plays in which directorial caprice--and, in some cases, sheer ineptitude--have prevailed over sensible interpretation. That's a shame, given that the plays can be credibly performed by casts of student performers, especially when they're given half a chance to remain true to the Bard's text. Any argument that the CSF's vast outdoor theater presents too daunting a challenge is simply hogwash: The group became nationally recognized by performing in that same space for over four decades. And since the CSF's top ticket price rivals that of the fully professional Denver Center Theatre Company, audiences have every right to expect that the CSF's final product will be comparatively compelling--which, with rare exceptions, it hasn't been for years.

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Jim Lillie