The second offering in Shakespeare's historical tetralogy, "Henry IV, Part I" mingles copious comedy with scads of swash and buckle. It's easy to see why the play -- the Elizabethan equivalent of an action film -- has been so enduringly popular.
In their current staging at A Noise Within, co-directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott tackle Shakespeare's history with brisk forthrightness. The flatly painted backdrop in Michael C. Smith's uncomplicated set looks like it was salvaged from a traveling troupe, while Soojin Lee's sumptuous period costumes could have been gleaned from storage at the Old Vic. Take that as a statement of intent for this production, which is, quite simply, old school Shakespeare, smartly done, from its lively tavern scenes to the epic Battle of Shrewsbury.
The action commences shortly after Henry IV (Robertson Dean), has usurped the throne from the rightful king, Richard II. Now, King Henry faces a rebel uprising among his disenchanted former allies.
But the king has personal as well as political problems, most notably the scandalous behavior of his son, Prince Hal (Freddy Douglas), who, to quote the country song, has friends in low places. Lowest of all is Sir John Falstaff (Geoff Elliott), a knight whose appetites are as extravagant as his mendacity.
As Shakespeare takes pains to point out, Hal is largely shamming his dissipation to make his eventual transformation to heroism all the more remarkable. Hal manages his public persona like a latter-day spin doctor.
That's a stretch, and many actors portraying Hal gloss over that plot point as an obligatory aside. Not so the excellent Douglas, who gives blinding flashes of the glinting shrewdness beneath Hal's deceptively jaded exterior.
Elliott's Falstaff may, at first glance, also seem a stretch, especially to those familiar with Elliott's work. Indeed, Elliott has a lean, brooding quality that seems antithetical to his casting as arguably the most beloved clown in Shakespeare's canon. Yet, although the substantially padded Elliott never reaches the heights of pure buffoonery endemic to Falstaff, his is a twinkling, calculating portrayal, by turns grandiose and craven but always delightful.
Among the large and able cast, J. Todd Adams delivers the most pyrotechnical turn of the evening as Hotspur, the rebel who is determined to bring down the king. A quicksilver performer with washboard abs, Adams renders a Hotspur that is, well . . . hot. Reckless and impulsive, Hotspur is ultimately outdone by the coolly rational Hal, who will himself be baptized in the blood of battle and born again as England's true king. Fight choreographer Kenneth R. Merckx does himself honor on the field with his aerobic fight scenes, titanic clashes in which the sparks literally fly.
'Henry IV, Part I'
Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: See www.anoisewithin.org for schedule
Ends: May 18
Contact: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes