The Canon Shakespeare Company’s “Henry IV, Part 1″ Nimbly Blends Humor and History

The Bard’s tale of three Henrys hasn’t lost its personal or political bite.

Henry IV Part 1 (courtesy of the canon shakespeare company)

Despite its dry title, Henry IV, Part 1, which the Canon Shakespeare Company is performing in repertory with Henry IV, Part 2, is a dazzling comedic drama.

The no-frills production, with minimalist props and costumes (a crocheted tunic serves as armor for the king), carries the emotional power of a flashier, big-budget show, thanks to director Alec Henneberger’s passion for the Bard and some spellbinding performances by his cast.

While nowhere nearly as popular today as Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this history, based on an actual rebellion that took place in 1403, was a hit with English audiences when it was first staged in the 1590s.

Modern audiences can’t hope to follow all the intricacies of medieval politics—or understand the crude Elizabethan jokes without actors miming certain acts—but in the Canon’s capable hands, Henry IV is still a lucid play of compelling characters and contrasts between honor/debauchery and loyalty/rebellion.

In the first act, Henry IV (Ryan Pfeiffer), is down in the dumps. He feels guilty for stealing the crown from his cousin Richard II (not to mention having him killed), and he’s contending with a band of lords who’d like to depose him. To make matters worse, his son and heir, Prince Henry, also known as Hal (Rowan Dery), is a drunken disappointment who spends all his time with his pal Sir John Falstaff (Ira Kortum) at the Boar’s Head Tavern.

In contrast to Hal, Lord Henry Percy, nicknamed “Hotspur” (Justine Summers), is a brave but impulsive soldier who disapproves of the way King Henry treats the Percy family. The scene in which the king takes Hotspur to task for his rebellious spirit is nothing short of astonishing.

Forget Shakespeare’s language: Watching Hotspur’s barely contained rage broiling in Summer’s face is poetry itself. Say the wrong word and he may become completely unhinged. Summers, in her Portland theater debut, delivers a performance so enthralling audiences will find it ironic that when not acting, she works as an anesthesiologist.

According to Shakespeare, Hal’s actually as valiant as Hotspur: He’s just pretending to be a ne’er-do-well in order to catch his enemies off guard. That’s a bit of a stretch, considering Hal seems to be having the time of his life with his drunken pals, who laugh uproariously as they play pranks on each other. Dery, though, convinces us of Hal’s good heart when he’s called back to his father’s court. Whereas before he was blowing raspberries at Falstaff, Hal stands in anguished but dignified silence as his father berates him.

Comedy and drama are nimbly balanced in this history, sometimes combining the two. Before the battle, the great comic character Falstaff shows how he plans to surprise the rebels by first feigning death then suddenly springing an upright sword between his legs. Even the dead-serious Hotspur is a comic figure when he’s so wrapped up in his militant emotions that he keeps interrupting his uncle (played with admirable gravitas by Lauren Pickthorn), who’s trying to offer advice.

To make the transitions from silly to somber smooth, Chloe Lovelady’s sound design adds music between each scene, preparing the audience for a shift in tone. We hear mournful notes before seeing Henry or Hotspur, then jaunty jazz before a switch to the boozy banter at the Boar’s Head.

While not a lavish production, this Henry is still a feast for the eyes and ears, especially when the jovial Falstaff is holding court, telling his wildly amusing tales. With his bushy beard, rumbling voice and expansive gestures, Kortum charms as Sir John concocts a story to hide his own cowardice. Also absorbing is the visceral spectacle of the fight scenes, directed by Sawyer Jackson, with shiny swords and muscular parries and thrusts.

In the final battle between Hotspur and the prince, we’re supposed to root for Hal, but even he honors Hotspur’s commitment to his convictions and takes a moment to mourn his demise. To further blur the line between adversaries, Hotspur falls to the ground in the fetal position, emphasizing the purity of his spirit.

In this world, everyone is human, even our worst enemies.

SEE IT: Henry IV, Part 1 plays at Twilight Theater, 7515 N Brandon Ave., 503-869-5760, 8 pm Thursday, April 4 and 11; 3 pm Saturday, April 6 and 13; and 1 pm Sunday, April 14. $20.

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