Sitting through six straight hours of Shakespeare, even for a theater critic who is used to the demands of the job, is a daunting task for anyone. So it’s a relief that Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s staging of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” doesn’t leave you exhausted at the end of the day. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t leave you exhilarated. Despite the diptych’s epic scope, from its dark chambers of council to its greener pastures of countryside, from the violent battles between soldiers to the jovial jocularity between lowlifes, the emotional heart of these plays lies in the universal story concerning fathers and sons, their estrangements and father-figure substitutes. In director Barbara Gaines’ production, it is clear that what drives the young and irascible Prince Hal (Jeffrey Carlson) into the welcoming arms of Falstaff (Greg Vinkler) and the rest of his comical cronies is refuge from David Lively’s barking tyrant of a father, the titular King Henry IV. But why Hal stays is a mystery. There is so little warmth and intimacy between his Hal and Falstaff, mostly due to Carlson’s cold, much too calculating and rather nasty portrayal of the former, that the play lacks the credibility and emotional resonance of this core relationship. It also doesn’t help things that Lively’s angry king, with nary a shade of possible paternal understanding, robs that relationship of any psychological nuance. Vinkler, donning a fat suit to play Shakespeare’s “sweet creature of bombast,” admirably avoids the cliché jolly Saint Nick interpretation of Falstaff for one that emphasizes a self-deprecating humor masking a fundamental melancholy, as if he knows that the young prince will never accept him. Thus, why he would be surprised at the end of Part II when Hal (as the newly coronated King Henry V) rejects him mercilessly I cannot understand nor feel pity. As the production stands now, this under-rehearsed but salvageable production has about six weeks before they reach England as part of the Complete Works Festival. They’re going to need it. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Avenue, (312)595-5600. Wed 11am/Fri 5:45pm/Sat 4pm/Sun 2pm. $95. Through June 18.