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The Strange and Unlikely Friendship of King Henry and Sir John Falstaff

From left: Michael Kahn, Stacy Keach, Marijke Gero, Edward Gero and Malgosia Keach at the Opening Night reception of Richard II (1993).

King Henry IV and Falstaff stand at opposite ends of Prince Hal, providing him with discipline and distraction, love and obligation. They rarely share the stage, living instead in their distinctive worlds. Yet in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, the two actors leave the stage and enter what could easily be described as a backstage buddy comedy. During a joint interview one Friday in February, longtime friends Stacy Keach and Edward Gero laughed and relaxed. Their conversation appropriately felt cinematic, as Michael Roth’s original production music resonated from the rehearsal room next door.

Keach and Gero met backstage at STC in 1990. The company’s Will Award was being given to Christopher Plummer. As a longstanding Washington-area actor and member of the acting company, Gero showed up to rehearsal wearing his usual ensemble of sweatshirt, baseball cap and sneakers to find Keach, wearing a nearly identical outfit. It was not just their matching outfits that excited Gero. As he explains, he had been given the opportunity to meet one of his acting inspirations.

Photo of Stacy Keach as Macbeth in STC’s 1995 production of Macbeth by Carol Pratt.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe it,” Gero recalled thinking, “I went up to him and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you, you’re largely responsible for my being in this classical world.’ He was very gracious, and I was a fan.” Gero was telling the truth. His career was inspired by watching Stacy Keach’s 1973 Hamlet in Central Park, alongside James Earl Jones and Colleen Dewhurst, when he was still a high school student. The production inspired him to begin studying theatre and devote his career to classical works.

Keach’s participation at the Will Awards served to announce that he would play Richard III in Michael Kahn’s upcoming production. During rehearsals for the production the actors’ friendship developed. Keach remembers early in the rehearsal process for Richard III, he left the rehearsal studio to discover his wife Malgosia and Gero’s wife Marijke walking down the street. Both women were headed to greet their husbands with their toddlers in tow. Having sons of the same age turned out to be one of a number of similarities the two men would discover. Among the list, they shared a favorite Shakespeare scholar, Marvin Rosenberg, who had taught Keach at Berkeley in the early 1960s. Over the years, as Gero and Keach were cast together in Macbeth and later King Lear, the two actors would revisit Rosenberg’s books. During their work together on Robert Falls’ King Lear, performed three years after Rosenberg’s death, they agreed they were giving a performance of which “Marvin would be proud.”

Photo of Edward Gero as Henry Bolingbroke and Richard Thomas as King Richard II in STC’s 1993 production of Richard II by T. Charles Erickson.

Coming together now, in their first production together since King Lear five seasons ago, it is clear that this production of Henry IV plays an important role in their personal production histories. This is Edward Gero’s third time performing this play on the STC stage. He played Hotspur in Kahn’s 1994 production of the two plays edited together; he also appeared as Worchester and the Chief Justice in Bill Alexander’s repertory production, a decade ago. For Gero, one of the joys of this production is watching Kahn rediscover these plays. He recalls the earlier production being “youthful and energetic” while this one seems deeper, more intimate. Gero also enjoys returning to the role of Henry Bolingbroke, after playing him as a younger man in Kahn’s production of Richard II, where his usurpation of Richard II led to his crowning as Henry IV. Early in the rehearsals, while exploring the blocking of the play’s first scene, Kahn placed Gero, sitting, in the throne, exactly where he had him when he staged the ending of Richard II two decades ago. The continuity hit Gero. “When the play starts, he hasn’t gotten off the throne for twenty years. It put me right in the play, I knew exactly who I was.”

Stacy Keach is likewise returning to a character he has already played. He played Falstaff at the age of 27 in the 1968 Shakespeare in the Park production. The two plays were done in repertory, similar to STC’s current production, in which the two plays are performed on consecutive nights. Except, as Keach points out, for one performance. On that night the two plays were performed back to back, starting in the evening and lasting until dawn. Keach reminisced that as they approached the end of Part 2, Hal had his climatic confrontation with Falstaff as the sun rose. It was an “amazing experience,” Keach says, “[I’ve] never forgotten it.” Now, at the age of 72, he’s revisiting what he and many others call “one of the great Shakespeare characters.” When asked if either actor would be willing to perform all night now, they both laughed with mischievous sparkles in their eyes.

Photo of Stacy Keach as King Lear and Edward Gero as the Earl of Gloucester in STC’s 2009 production of King Lear by Carol Rosegg.

When spending time with Keach and Gero, that sparkle is frequently apparent. Their shared history goes beyond the stage. They have spent holidays together, talked for many hours on the putting green and traveled for miles to see each other perform. When asked which performances of each other’s they most admired they responded almost in unison, laughing: “Nixon!” Keach played the role in Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan and Gero in Russell Lees’ Nixon’s Nixon. They joked about creating their own Nixon two-man show but suddenly became serious as they expressed their hope to keep working together: “We’re talking about doing a production of Waiting for Godot, which we would like to do,” Keach remarked, followed by Gero’s agreement, “Very much, very, very much.”

On the stage, Falstaff and King Henry will keep their distance, but know this: during their time off, the two will be teeing up. According to Gero, golf “is a great way to get away and talk about life, work and be humbled by the little white pebble.”

“And,” added Keach “the older we get, the better chances we have at shooting our age.”


Hannah Hessel Ratner, STC’s Audience Enrichment Manager, is in her third season at STC and holds an MFA in Dramaturgy from Columbia University.

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