The cast of Impact Theatre’s Henry IV: The Impact Remix did not expect the second curtain call they got on opening night. The orderly choreography they’d used for their first bow gave way to a chaotic chorus line as one actor hurriedly pulled his shirt back on. That second bow is something they should work on, as this show represents a quantum leap forward for a company that has toiled in relative obscurity for six seasons. With Henry IV, Impact delivers a mature, well-conceived, and emotionally searing product while managing to hold onto the blend of boozing, fighting, and sex that has been its trademark.
Why is this Henry so strong? Is it because Impact is doing Shakespeare, something with a shelf life? That could be it, although it’s easy to screw up Shakespeare, and Impact doesn’t. Is it the infusion of a bunch of talented actors, new to Impact but not to nuanced performances? Maybe, but the Impact stable had some real talent to begin with. The truth is that while it’s not doing anything all that different — the tavern still figures prominently, as do the excellent Christopher Morrison-built sword fights — something has clicked into place. It’s fair to say that Impact is growing up.
The company’s choice for a first foray into Shakespeare is unusual. We haven’t seen much of Shakespeare’s histories lately, that massive batch of Johns, Richards, and Henrys battling out their tedious War of the Roses. Some considerate theater companies in other towns do the whole cycle over the course of a season or two — the British history box set. “Who cares?” said Impact, and pounded out a stunning, complete-in-itself Henry IV that needs no introduction, sequel, or apology.
Henry IV has deposed and probably murdered Richard II, and now holds the throne against the Scots and the Welsh. Meanwhile, his son Hal boozes it up, hanging out with the disreputable Falstaff and learning things like how to cheat and steal and do body shots off Mistress Quickly, proprietress of the Boar’s Head Tavern. The Earl of Worcester schemes against the throne, using his nephew Harry Percy (known as Hotspur) to foment a rebellion, with the Scots and Welsh as allies. Hal returns to court, persuades his father that he’s got the cojones to go after Hotspur, and battle is joined. Which is about where this Henry will start giving purists conniptions.
As Shakespeare broke it down, Part One ends with Hal triumphant, his father alive, and Falstaff rewarded for his part in the battle, a happy ending for everyone except the rebels. It’s well into Part Two before Hal, newly crowned, cuts Falstaff off, leaving the latter to die of grief. That wasn’t interesting to artistic director Melissa Hillman and her dramaturg Josh Costello (Impact’s original artistic director, newly returned from New York), so they conflated the two and cut to the chase, giving their Henry a much darker, sadder, and to my mind more dramatic and contemporary ending. While it will make those who demand to see Shakespeare delivered exactly as written spin in their seats, it should thrill everyone else.
Sir John Falstaff, believed by many to be the linchpin of this play, is usually played as a sort of bawdy Santa Claus. Hillman wanted something different. So she cast Bill Boynton (late of Transparent’s Golden State as Dennis Wilson/Aquaman) for the kind of Falstaff “who would introduce Hal to cocaine.” Boynton’s slouching Falstaff is ornery, domineering, and looks like he might smell pretty rank. He’s also vulnerable and sad, an old, tired man who has made a grave error in trusting the young prince. This is Shakespeare’s genius: At first glance, Falstaff is the wicked one, leading Hal into depravity, but in fact it is Hal who will mislead this perverse father figure and eventually betray him. There’s an amazing moment when Hal and Falstaff are role-playing Hal’s interview with his father the king. Hal plays the king, Falstaff Hal. When Falstaff begins to suspect that something is up, his face is filled with so much uncertainty it will break your heart. Boynton plays Falstaff big, but he also handles moments like this well. He’s also very funny playing Falstaff-playing-the-king; he’s obviously paid close attention to certain mannerisms of Golden State castmate Garth Petal, who here plays the king.
Where Falstaff is reckless, Hal’s real father King Henry is a ramrod-straight model of calculated control, one of the things Petal does very well. His business-suit-clad Henry is graceful, shrewd, and slightly oily; he’d be a corporate raider in our time. His disappointment in Hal and preference for younger son John is clear. It will come out that Henry and Hal are more alike than either realizes, even though they are (quite consciously) choosing different masks to cover their ambitions. While Henry may not love his eldest son as much as the younger, he does grow to respect Hal.
Hal (Richard Bolster) is slippery: hanging out with criminals, he doesn’t do anything criminal himself. He’s a rich kid slumming until it’s time to clean up and get a job, and Bolster’s slight, boyish appearance suits the role. His barely controlled agitation during the scene where Hal faces Henry will be recognizable to anybody who’s ever been dressed down by a parent. His nemesis Hotspur (Karl Ramsey), on the other hand, has no control. Ramsey has to make quite a few hairpin turns as a man who’s more comfortable on the battlefield than playing politics; he is truly, as Henry says of him, “Mars in swaddling cloths.” Certain characters have been souped-up, most notably Archibald, the Earl of Douglas, known here simply as the Douglas, apparently a Scottish ninja demon summoned up by Owen Glendower (Dave Dyson, also effective as the put-upon Francis), who has, with an Ozzy-like shake of his hands, explained that he calls forth spirits from “the vasty deep.” I saw the Douglas played by Morrison with all sorts of wushu sword fighting; sadly the original Douglas, Areta Wang, was out with an injury. Other than Wang, Hillman has worked a few women into roles written for men, namely Peto the footpad (Allison Hooker) and the Earls of Vernon and Westmoreland (Alyssa Bostwick and Jessica Hird). Hird also makes the most of her turn as Lady Kate Percy, Hotspur’s wife, who never gets a good answer about why he hasn’t been coming to bed lately. We really feel her frustration when he calls for his horse, and suspect with her that he’s not coming back.
It’s easy to see this play, and especially this production, in terms of cold and hot, from the colors of the opposing factions to the personalities of the characters. Hal, his father, and Worcester are deadly cold, while Falstaff and Hotspur are full of careless heat. Many of the interactions are shaped by this dynamic. Director Hillman uses this, as well as the tension between fathers and sons and the elusive nature of honor, to create a smart, fast-paced, and wholly engaging show that should appeal to a broader audience than the 18-to-35 cohort Impact has courted so assiduously in the past.