Post image for Chicago Theater Review: FATHER RUFFIAN: SHAKESPEARE’S FALSTAFF STORY (City Lit)

by Lawrence Bommer on January 14, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


There’s potent psychology operating inside Shakespeare’s two-part Henry IV, the twin tales of a false father and a false son. The latter is Prince Hal, the fiery rebel whose Spartan-pure rage against his father, Henry IV, makes daddy (formerly “Bolingbroke”) wish that the rebel Henry Percy (“Hotspur”) was his son and not Hal, the current Prince of Wales. Henry IV’s disappointing namesake is a wastrel scion who carouses in corruption at the Boar’s Head Tavern when he should be defending the realm. Hal’s boonest companion is the notoriously rotund glutton, womanizer, and sybarite Sir John Falstaff—a greedy geezer who has become a false father to the true prince (though we’re never in doubt that Hal’s coming of age will mean repudiating his merry mentor).

Not just history plays set in the 14th century, this dynamic duo chronicles the father’s discovery that his son and heir is not a phony playboy, unworthy his Lancastrian blood, but the future conqueror of France at Agincourt. That, of course, requires Hal’s sudden reformation from rake to ruler. By plays’ end the tension triggered by the false loved ones is cured by a reconciliation of true blood.

Edward Kuffert as Falstaff in City Lit Theater's world premiere production of FATHER RUFFIAN. Photo by Cole Simon.The rise to that occasion is the payoff behind what’s otherwise the saga of a thwarted dynastic threat by the rebellious Northern lords, contrasted with tall tavern tales of Falstaff, lying to cover up his boasting, swilling sack, owing money, and leading the future king of England into thievery and lechery. (When war comes, Falstaff proves equally venal at accepting bribes and recruiting the worst soldiers to defend the king.)

That’s the territory uncertainly mapped by Father Ruffian (the title, one of many epithets the Prince launches at his paunchy pal). This new adaption by director Paul Edwards for City Lit draws from Shakespeare’s source in the Holinshed chronicles and a snippet from Henry V. The result is a confused modernization, an unwieldy 155-minute mix of swords and cellphones, illustrated by Edwards’ projections depicting battle plans, newspaper headlines, even a snippet of Judge Judy (as if there isn’t enough warfare in the plot). Despite the arrant anachronisms, Edwards’ condensation equally honors both sides of the story: the Palace of Westminster and the infamous Cheapside tavern.

Nick Lake as Prince Hal in City Lit Theater's world premiere production of FATHER RUFFIAN. Photo by Cole Simon.But, as director, Edwards delivers underwhelming results. Seemingly subtle dialogue is ear-splittingly declaimed, maddeningly bellowed with an equal emphasis on everything. (Even in passion choices must be made.) The worst offender is Nick Bonges’ steadily shrieking, ever-growling Hotspur, though Molly Lyons’ potentially eloquent Worcester also blows too hard. Perversely, Mark Pracht’s Henry IV effaces himself, swallowing lines to underplay the guilt-ridden father. The one player to get the dynamics right is Nick Lake’s “Hal”: He never loses the future Henry V in the bad boy roisterer.

City Lit’s Falstaff is, tragically, not funny. Too young to pretend to be an antique knight, Edward Kuffert’s peremptory gasbag is all heft and little depth. Missing is the essential pathos and vulnerability behind this pathetically senile Peter Pan. No question, this gruffly misogynistic and vaguely nasty Falstaff goes through all the motions. Thanks to the Bard, Kuffert receives built-in laughs from his lout’s pompous prevarications. (But serial vomiting at the Boar’s Head is not as hilarious as it seems.)

In the final scene, where the new king literally gets “the finger” from his old associates–implying that Hal lost a lot when he rejected Falstaff–it’s hard to guess the glories that are gone. “Good riddance to loud rubbish” is not the response we should have to Shakespeare’s funniest creation.

photos by Cole Simon

Father Ruffian: Shakespeare’s Falstaff Story
City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Fri & Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on February 15, 2015
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit

for Chicago Theater info, visit

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Alicia January 19, 2015 at 5:17 am

I usually agree with you, but not this time. It has some problems, but I think people who know Shakespeare would enjoy it. I did.


david February 8, 2015 at 5:38 pm

The critics have done a great disservice to playgoers in Chicago. This play is deserving of at least a recommended and the argument could be made that is should be highly recommended. The direction is superb and the acting is first rate from all of the actors. Falstaff is just what he should be and Doll is marvelously lovable and slutty. We had tickets, but after reading the reviews we almost didn’t go. It would have been a shame because this is a first rate condensed production of Shakespeare’s greatest plays with 2 of his greatest characters.


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