LENOX -- If nothing else, "King Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2," at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse is a testament to inadequate military training.
Armed with both hand guns and swords, the soldiers firing guns are just as likely to miss their targets -- and from close range, no less -- as they are to hit them. How emblematic of a hit-and-miss production that misses far more than it hits.
Shakespeare’s "King Henry IV, Part I" and "King Henry IV, Part II" -- from which director-actor Jonathan Epstein cobbled his adaptation -- continues to chart a saga of nation building that is spun in the two "Richard" plays, the two "Henry IV" plays, "Henry V" and the three separate parts of "Henry VI."
But in charting the growth of a nation, Shakespeare also tracks in the two "King Henry IVs" the emergence of a king from the profligate tatters of a son in rebellion-- not in a military sense but rather a headstrong hellion’s rebellion against a stern father who must place duty to throne and country above love of son.
Prince Hal (played with engaging charisma and subtle clarity by Henry Clarke) has hard lessons to learn. The love he is denied by his father (Epstein in an exquisitely nuanced, sure performance), he finds in his wild comradeship with Falstaff (a curiously boring and tiresome Malcolm Ingram), a self-serving, narcissistic bag of wind who finds in Hal an all-too-adept playmate on the wild side until, near the end, in a moment that proves less telling in the playing than it should, he is discarded by Hal in his final act of transformation from Prince Hal to King Henry V.
As long as "Henry IV, Part 1 and 2" spends time with Henry and / or Hal, it is in gripping hands, as if this is the story that wants to be told. The rest is fog, wasteland, treading in place; a production that exists on a flat emotional plane.
Some of the failure is Shakespeare’s. The writing is not his strongest. At the same time, however, Epstein’s consolidation rather than simplify and illuminate the political issues and players, complicates and clouds them.
Epstein’s blending of time periods -- while gratuitous -- is less of an issue than one might expect and, in instances, leads to some shrewd observations, particularly one scene in which news of the outcome of an important battle is received via cell phone by more than one interested party all at once.
The most unsettling issue in this production is its exposure of a fundamentally inexperienced acting company, made up of wannabes and young developing actors who substitute earnestness, enthusiasm and sincerity for maturity, depth and authenticity..
Nor does it help that the fight scenes, especially a climactic showdown between Hal and his sworn enemy, the rebellious Hotspur (who, as played by Timothy Adam Venable is no match for Hal), are awkwardly staged at best; ludicrous almost to the point of parody
Epstein ends all this with a cheerless, robotically executed dance by the full company. How appropriate for a production that does nothing but send out mixed signals for the better part of three-plus hours.