The New York Shakespeare Festival is ending its 26th season of free performances in a blaze of Lancastrian glory. The production staged by Des McAnuff is distinguished by some first-rate acting where it counts most, and by a general level of playing that consistently serves this great history play. For stage action, the revival climaxes with a series of fight sequences (arranged by B. H. Barry) that lack nothing in the way of adroitly choreographed fury and violence.
For a prologue, Mr. McAnuff borrows the Duke of York's claimant speech from "Henry IV, Part 2," giving the Delocorte Theater audience a quick rundown of the developments leading to Henry IV's seizure of the throne. The idea may or may not original with the present director. And it may or may not add appreciably to the understanding of the chronicle. But placing the rebel prologuist high on the ramparts of Stuart Wurtzel's moated fortresslike tower immediately creates a sense of loftiness and dimension appropriate to high events. The multileveled setting is ingeniously adaptable.
According to the noted Elizabeth scholar G. B. Harrison, "Shakespeare first reached complete maturity as a dramatist" in this "Henry" play. Harrison cites the care Shakespeare took in elaborating his characters -- notably Hotspur, that irrepressible warrior, who thinks "it were an easy leap, to pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon." He also cites Sir John Falstaff, that irrepressible coward, whose mocking diagnosis of honor punctuates the counter theme of the drama.
One of the play's unending fascinations is the interweaving of low-life antics -- the highway robbery and subsequent revelation of Falstaff's cowardice, the mock trial, and so forth -- with the deadly game of war and politics in which the rebels challenge the king whom they once befriended.
Prince Hal moves easily in both worlds. John Vickery moves with him as the heir to the throne makes the rapid but not surprising transition from "nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales" to repentance and chivalrous valor. Mr. Vickery delivers Hal's "I know you all . . ." with a coolly politic realism rather than with the cold contempt that is occasionally used.
This is an altogether fine performance. If Kenneth McMillan's Falstaff speaks with a somewhat unaccountable accent, his rascally wit, his sense of fun and foolishness, match the girth of the part.
As Hotspur, Mandy Patinkin blazes away with blunt challenges and impatient rebuffs. Miss Patinkin seems less at ease in such quieter moments as the briefs scenes with Lady Percy (Margaret Whitton), perhaps in part because of the way Mr. McAnuff has directed them -- and not forgetting the problems of outdoor performance. Stephen Markle is a self-assuredly absolute, if somewhat one-dimensional monarch.
Among those more prominently cast in this honorable production are Rex Robbins (Westmoreland), John Goodman (Sir Walter Blunt), Philip Casnoff (Poins), Ralph Driscoll (Worcester), Clement Fowler (Northumberland), Todd Waring (Mortimer), Max Wright (Glendower), Ralph Byers (Douglas), and Robert Westenberg (Sir Richard Vernon).
Beulah Garrick does the Boar's Head Tavern honors as Mistress Quickly and Richard Ziman's Francis races frantically through his small but by no means throwaway comic scene. The populous cast includes a well-drilled ensemble and, for an added touch of mounted martiality, a well-behaved horse.
Besides Mr. Wurtzel, the Central Park "Henry" was designed by Patricia McGourty (Costumes), Richard Nelson (lighting), and J. Roy Helland (hair and makeup), Richard Peaslee composed the drum rolls, trumpet flourishes, and other incidental music.