By Ellen Booraem
STONINGTON — Shakespeare’s history plays sometimes suffer from too much, well, history. The two parts of “Henry IV,” for example, challenge us to track a dizzying array of earls with their shifting alliances and vagaries of fortune.
On the other hand, there’s Falstaff. Also the weary, guilt-ridden Henry IV, also his wastrel son, who has a hotshot rival for his father’s admiration. Shakespeare’s strength is in his characters, and they don’t get much better than these.
Following a long tradition of Stonington Opera House productions that tweak the Bard just a tetch, Producing Artistic Director Meg Taintor took her courage in her hands and combined Parts One and Two of “Henry IV” into one two-and-a-half-hour production.
The play is at the Opera House Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 24-26, at 7 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 27, at 4 p.m.
Following the heart of the story, Taintor focused her version on the coming-of-age drama between Prince Hal and his sorry dad. We still get plenty of 15th-century politics and a cool battle scene, and we still have the chance to get delightfully muddled about who’s fighting whom and why. It’s just that there’s one of each thing and everybody’s less wordy about it.
Though long, this is a fun and fast-moving production, complete with musical interludes and a good dose of Falstaffian humor. It’s heavier on Part One, making quick work of Part Two’s anti-climactic rebel maneuvers so we can linger on the scenes between Henry and Hal at the end.
Here’s the basic premise: Henry IV feels guilty about having deposed his cousin, Richard II, and keeps talking about making a pilgrimage in atonement. First, though, he has to knock down rebellious Scots and Welsh, allied with some of his own dissatisfied nobles.
It would be helpful if he could rely on his son, but Hal spends most of his time carousing with a band of cutpurses led by Sir John Falstaff, a fat, hard-drinking, cowardly soldier. Henry can’t help envying a rebellious lord whose son, nicknamed Hotspur, seems to be everything the Prince of Wales is not. (We, the audience, know what Henry doesn’t — Hal has every intention of cleaning up his act when the time is ripe, and Hotspur’s a pain in the neck.)
In Taintor’s production, six actors play at least 24 characters, following Opera House custom by mixing up the sexes. A blistering pace leaves no time for costume changes, so actors switch character by swiftly altering one article of clothing — a scarf becomes a sash, a poncho a hood. The transition is clear 99.9 percent of the time.
The sleight-of-cast lends itself to magnificent, goofy moments, notably the one in which Curt Klump hops back and forth to portray both Falstaff and his opponent in battle, the roaring Scottish Earl of Douglas. Esther Williamson wins the metamorphosis prize, switching from Hotspur to an anxious Welsh princess with nothing more than a change of expression and hairdo, then moving on to portray the avaricious Justice Shallow.
Nobody has time for much deep characterization — the price you pay for speed. The exceptions are Matt Hurley’s Hal, a troubled prince with a calculating look in his eye, and Klump’s funny yet intelligent approach to Falstaff. They give us a nuanced final scene: You know Hal’s doing the right thing and he’s still our guy, but, man, he’s a cold one.
The pace does slow when it needs to. Taintor and cast savor the fake-banditry trick Hal and friends play on Falstaff, and do full justice to the telling scenes at the end, when Hal makes peace with his father and comes into his own.
The kingdom, we feel, is in good hands.
Tickets for “Henry IV” are $25-$40, available at www.operahousearts.org or 367-2788.