Arts and Culture

There’s a story that I have not verified, but I like it so much I refuse to sully my mind with the truth.

When William Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 first premiered in the English court, the play’s name was mistakenly written down by some scribe as “Falstaff and Hotspur.”

It would be an easy mistake to make. While Hotspur dies at the end of Henry IV Part 1, he is central to the story, and in a lot of ways more interesting than King Henry IV. As for Falstaff, he’s clearly the real protagonist in both parts of Henry IV, even though he’s a gluttonous and rascally knight of rather poor character. He drinks. He is implied to have had un-wedded marital relations with a whole host of women, some of whom it is strongly suggested are sex workers. He swindles people out of money. Most importantly, he corrupts Prince Hal, with whom he spends time drinking and carousing throughout both parts of Henry IV.

In Kentucky Shakespeare’s current production of Henry IV Part 2, the role of John Falstaff falls on the capable shoulders of J. Barrett Cooper (pictured above), who also played the role in Henry IV Part 1. Depending on the cutting and staging of next summer’s Henry V, Cooper will appear one last time as the crude knight. If not, we can always hope that Ky. Shakes will produce the only prequel Shakespeare ever wrote, and gives us the return of Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor for their 2020 season.

Cooper handily captures the buffoonery and comedy of Falstaff, and drinks in well earned laughter from the crowd, no mean feat given the rain-depleted audience at Tuesday’s performance.

He mostly sticks to the laughter, a solid choice for playing an amphitheater that holds up to 1,200 people, though some interpretations of the character lean more heavily on the idea that Falstaff has hidden depths lurking beneath his bravado and buffoonery.

Bill Brymer/Kentucky Shakespeare

Zach Burrell as Prince Hal.

If there is a dramatic arc for Falstaff, it’s his connection to Prince Hal, the heir apparent. Zachary Burrell continues the role from last summer, and once again injects his charm and humor into the role. It’s the same charm Burrell brings to his many roles as lovers and lovable rogues at Shakespeare.

But when it came time for Prince Hal and Burrell to move past humor, there was a struggle. Switching from overly cold, back to funny, back to cold several times, a truly kingly demeanor was never achieved. Hopefully this was a choice, showing Hal struggling with his nobility, the central theme of the play. That kind of subtlety is certainly not beyond the skills of director Amy Attaway.  We’ll see if Burrell can summon a fully regal demeanor next summer, when he and Attaway re-team for Henry V.

There are several stand outs in the rest of the cast. As the titular King Henry IV, Tom Luce doesn’t actually get much stage time, but he makes the most of what he has. In his hands the king’s agony over the hardships of leadership and the questions he has about a life full of grey morality are a moving mediation on age and doubt that feels universally applicable to anyone who is getting older, not just folks whose heads are heavy from wearing a crown.

Falstaff’s companions, especially the women of Eastcheap Inn, are comic awesomeness. Hallie Dizdarevic’s Doll Tearsheet and Jennifer Pennington’s Hostess Quickly make me long for eight seasons of some Cheers-esque sitcom that’s just them and various denizens of their bar being highly disreputable.

Bill Brymer/Kentucky Shakespeare

L-R Tom Luce as King Henry IV, Angelica Santiago as tavern mistress and Hallie Dizdarevic as Doll Tearsheet.

Scott Carney’s score is once again a really great example of a way to use music that — while technically speaking anachronistic — adds to and speeds along the action. His moody guitar screeches are perfect for the historical bits, though every once in a while they clashed a little with the humor of Falstaff.

The script is again complemented by a prologue and epilogue by Gregory Maupin that draws on some text from Shakespeare as well as Maupin’s own writing. It’s very good work, and a Shakespeare newbie might think it was written by the Bard himself.

Let’s pause there for a moment. Maupin — also responsible for paring down all the plays into the versions that Kentucky Shakespeare uses — is regularly doing a great job. But isn’t it time for the company to push him further?

Perhaps I’m particularly drawn to this topic by thoughts of “Chimes at Midnight,” an Orson Welles film that pulls from parts one and two of Henry IV, Henry V and Merry Wives of Windsor to tell the full story of Falstaff.

Since Maupin is so capable of making sense out of Shakespeare’s histories — why not task him with turning Shakespeare’s famously mediocre trilogy on Henry VIII into a single cogent and enjoyable play?

Or perhaps given Maupin’s familiarity with Don Quixote from his days with his the company Le Petomane, throw him in a room with a copy of Double Falsehood, a play sometimes accepted as Shakespeare’s and supposedly inspired by Don Q. Add a copy of Cervantes’ novel, and don’t let Maupin out until he has a new script.

Artistic Director Matt Wallace, along with Attaway, Maupin and the rest of the de facto resident company in the park have delivered unto Louisville six successful summer seasons of Shakespeare, produced and performed at the highest level Louisville’s seen in years — or possibly ever.

Now what?

The truly top tier Shakespeare companies, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The American Shakespeare Center and the like, don’t just produce the works of The Bard’s canon, but add to that canon. It’s time for Kentucky Shakespeare Festival to join them, and a new multi-play edit or Shakespeare-adjacent work from Maupin seems like a good place to start. I suspect he has several ideas brewing already.

Henry IV runs the rest of this week at the C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheatre in Central Park, 1340 South Fourth Street. It then returns for three more performances the week of July 14, alternating with Kentucky Shakespeare’s other two offerings from this season, King Lear and As You Like it.

Disclosure: Kentucky Shakespeare Associate Artistic Director Amy Attaway is also a fill-in host on WFPL. Sound designer Laura Ellis, who also worked on the production, is WFPL’s podcast editor.