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Henry IV

Shakespeare Festival Saint Louis, 2014

Tina Farmer – KDHX

There was a chill in the air opening night of Henry IV, and a slight wind, adding a sense of drama well before the curtain. The show, teeming with intrigue, war and Prince Hal’s transformation, keeps the tension mounting, weaving a tale that leaves the majority of the audience spellbound from opening scene to curtain call.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis opens its summer season at Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park with a riveting, action-packed performance of the company’s adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. Though performed less frequently than other histories, Henry IV is an insightful play, successfully showing the folly and petulance of youth mirrored by the regrets and fading ambition of age against a backdrop of war and politics.

Henry Bolingbroke, crowned Henry IV after forcibly taking the crown from Richard II, is facing a mounting challenge from other nobles keen on usurping his crown. As war moves closer in, he calls his sons and nobles to him, seeking to assess both the challenge and his base of support. Understanding that he is not long for this world, he must also deal with the issue of his successor.

Much to his chagrin, son Henry, the heir apparent commonly known as Hal, busies himself frequenting local taverns and keeping friendships with Sir John Falstaff, Ned Poins, Mistress Quickly, and other characters of questionable repute. The local companions add a good deal of humor to the show, and the robbery scene is a fittingly slapstick contrast to the violence of the battles to come. As Prince Henry matures, pledging to defend the King and battle the challenger Hotspur, he must turn away from his former acquaintances.

The cast is a mix of local and imported talent, and they work together with a certain synchronicity and common purpose. The result is a sure-handed production that smoothly, even lithely, conquers the language and delivers connected, impassioned performances. Directed with efficiency and purpose by Tim Ocel, Henry IV is a tale of generations as much as war. The ensemble expertly displays the imperfections of each character’s age with spirit and commitment; and each actor brings a certainty to their performance, adding to the dramas inherent tension.

Representing youth are the two Henry’s, Prince Harry and Henry Percy, also known as Hal and Hotspur. Jim Butz is thoughtful and cunning as Prince Harry. His turn from playboy Hal to a valiant leader and serious heir to the throne is both a careful calculation and a natural inclination, and he effortlessly rises to the occasion with a sure voice and charismatic command. Charles Pasternak as Henry Percy, the impetuous and impatient Hotspur, is bold and aggressive. He is constant movement and action, swayed by a passion and idealism that manifests itself in raw energy.

As the older, but perhaps none the wiser, generation, Michael James Reed turns in a measured, world-weary performance as King Henry IV, while Tony DeBruno grumbles, groans and expounds as the overstuffed Sir John Falstaff. Reed stores his energy and wrath for a few lynchpin scenes, particularly the passing of the crown, while DeBruno spills over with enthusiastic exaggeration and heroic retellings at every chance.

A number of compelling supporting performances add to the depth and complexity of the show. Andrew Michael Neiman was bright and nimble as loyal Ned Poins and Kari Ely brought spunk and a touch of sarcasm to Mistress Quickly. Dakota Mackey-McGee was persuasive and passionate as Lady Percy, while Reginald Pierre, Drew Battles, Jerry Vogel and Joneal Joplin provide wise, clear council as members of their respective courts.

The stage in the Glen, by Scott C. Neale, is solid and imposing and the company is familiar with the outdoor setting, maximizing their use of the natural space. A wood and metal fortress suggestive of a castle when thrones and noblemen are present, the rocks and crags surrounding a battlefield when war is raging, and the interior of a cozy tavern, where Mistress Quickly presides. Multiple levels, and props added and subtracted by the cast members, add the touches necessary to define scene and location.

Costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis feature careful attention to detail and the material, colors and layered textures successfully reinforce each character’s standing, while moving fluidly with the actors, even during battle scenes. Matthew Lealon Young’s lighting design and Rusty Wandall’s sound design nicely complement the show with an unobtrusive presence, there when needed but otherwise unnoticeable.

Together, the cast and crew have brought to life a faced paced, swashbuckling Henry IV that nonetheless delivers the intended lessons on war, death and rising to the occasion. The plays remain an important episode in Shakespeare’s familial tale of power, corruption and redemption.

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