Let me say it flat out: Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Henry IV, the two parts shortened and fused, is the best American Shakespeare I have ever seen. As a purist, I miss the full texts spread over two evenings; as a realist, and even as a theater lover, I found Dakin Matthews’s compression canny, fluid, and thoroughly enjoyable. The essence is undamaged, the impact perhaps even greater. This is Shakespeare that even Shakespeare shunners must love.
First, Ralph Funicello’s set. As much towering architecture as scenery, it conveys more than a stage (even this giant one): a world. Large movable pieces configure and reconfigure themselves into entirely new vistas, apt and evocative, flowing smoothly into one another, accompanied by Mark Bennett’s outstanding music and sound, to which they seem almost to dance. Then, what wonders from that supreme lighting designer, Brian MacDevitt, whose lights go beyond dramatic efficacy and psychological veracity, extending the space they illuminate into an infinity made palpable. Add Jess Goldstein’s stunning costumes that manage to be both realistic and poetic, and you are immersed in a dreamscape as specific and manifold, as intimate and universal as Shakespeare’s matchless dramatic poetry.
And how thaumaturgically Jack O’Brien has directed! Everywhere you attend there are masterly touches, ranging from the microscopic to the all-encompassing, such as you have never seen before, could not have imagined, and are magically caught up in. There is movement where other directors give you stasis, yet it never obstructs the words; there is highlighting that never spills into obviousness. Nothing spoken is lost in sloppy or monotonous or overemphatic diction; you may miss the music of British English, but you get American at its most disciplined and communicative. All this from a director who can do similar wonders at the other end of the spectrum with Hairspray. Even the battle scenes, usually problematic, come off magnificently, thanks to all of the above plus Steve Rankin’s fights and Gregory Meeh’s special effects—better than special, unique.
What acting, too, from a large but beautifully integrated (in both senses) cast. On short notice, Michael Hayden has come up with a Prince Hal warmly believable in all his chameleonic aspects; Ethan Hawke’s Hotspur, though roughly four centuries ahead of his time, is a compelling, ardent creation. Richard Easton’s King Henry, perhaps just short of some ultimate refinement, is more than adequate, ditto Dana Ivey’s Mistress Quickly. Jeff Weiss has infectious fun with Justice Shallow, and Steve Rankin is the best Poins yet. Even in the smaller parts—Genevieve Elam’s Doll Tearsheet, Byron Jennings’s Worcester, Anastasia Barzee’s Lady Mortimer, Peter Jay Fernandez’s Vernon, to name but a few—we get glistening cameos. Only Audra McDonald, as Lady Percy, is painfully miscast.
Falstaff, the archetypal braggart, poltroon, toper and talker, wit and source of wit in others, is usually a figure larger than life. Kevin Kline—giving us the most restrained yet unforgettable Falstaff—makes him only life-size, or Kline-size, and it works: Instead of a merry, monumental lumberer, we get a graceful, wistful tergiversator, worth in itself the price of admission. The cost of missing out on this Henry IV is incalculable. This has to be seen; to slightly rephrase Hal in his next play, Henry V, “And gentlefolk in New York now abed / Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”
Both “Oh, boy!” and “By George!” apply to the musical Taboo, partly by and partly about Boy George. The former outcry, in exasperation, is for having to sit through it; the latter, in partial recognition, is for good tunes, despite wretchedly repetitive lyrics, and for some winning performances. Still, unless you are a Boy George fan or a freak-show fancier, you’ll find the pickings as slim as the slender thread trying to hold together the disparate halves of Charles Busch’s revised book, based on Mark Davies’s original. This is a dichotomous story: of Boy George and of Leigh Bowery, an Australian who went to London, became a designer and performance artist, outlandish dresser and fixture of the club scene, notably the club Taboo. He died of AIDS at age 33 in 1994.