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Henry IV

Shakespeare Festival Saint Louis, 2014

Judith Newmark – St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Sprawled across the lawn in Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen, couples cuddled together under blankets and sleeping bags. Teresa Lane separated her ski jacket into two parts so her friend Elana Davidson could wear half of it. Parents wrestled little kids into sweatshirts and mittens, and Steve Smith, recently arrived from Detroit, volunteered that it was probably colder there.

His wife, Kelly, nodded in agreement. “Anyway,” she said, “this is just wonderful.” Shakespeare Festival St. Louis embarked on its biggest season ever Saturday night, a season of two productions instead of one.

To make enough time both for Henry IV, the first show, and Henry V, which opens Saturday, “we have started earlier (in the spring) than ever before,” explained the production manager, Tom Martin. It made for a chilly opening night at the outdoor theater near the St. Louis Art Museum.

Nevertheless, about 1,000 theater-goers were on hand for the start of the ambitious season, with two productions telling the story of reckless young Prince Hal as he matures into England’s valiant King Henry V.

The two productions are really three plays because Henry IV is a combination of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. (Henry V is a full play on its own.) The plays were cut hard to fit this format, but remain full of incident and characters.

Director Tim Ocel shows a generous hand with scenes of spectacle, such as battles and coronations. He fills Scott C. Neale’s wooden set — tall, spare grids that rise over multilevel stairs — with fast-moving soldiers, busy serving women and hard-drinking lowlifes, creating a sense of throbbing life in 15th-century England.

At the same time, however, Ocel builds the drama by focusing on monologues. One by one, the four main characters speak directly to the audience from center stage.

King Henry IV (Michael James Reed), his son Hal (Jim Butz), their fiery foe Hotspur (Charles Pasternak) and the dissolute old rascal Falstaff (Tony DeBruno) each forces us to take him on his own terms. Each seems sure that this play is all about him — and when he is speaking, he convinces us, too.

That has two important effects. By clearing the stage for each man, Ocel clarifies the complicated story, which involves two factions, one led by Henry IV and the other by the Percy family, striving to rule England. We’re free to concentrate on one point of view at a time.

Reed delivers one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” with a heaviness that reveals how, although Henry is the title character, he’s not the hero.

Henry feels guilty about how he and his friends seized the crown in the first place. Now, at war with some of those former friends, he longs for sleep that won’t come.

Sitting on a step, slumping a little, he looks worn out. He probably is; it’s been a rough reign. Kingship without security is harder than being a poor sailor, he thinks. Victories don’t mean much if this is the prize.

Pasternak looks like a more traditional hero, right from his dashing entrance. Lithe and muscular, he leaps over staircases and strikes an alluring pose, head cocked and one shoulder angled up. He’s even dressed in black leather, like a Renaissance motorcyclist. (The cunning designer, Dorothy Marshall Englis, speaks to modern audiences even as she evokes the period.)

Later, when he urges his outnumbered men to fight, Hotspur embodies the kind of warrior hero that Henry admires and that we recognize.

But as we know, there was never a King Hotspur. The Percys lose the battle, which seems to undo the whole point. Should there be any doubt, Hotspur’s adoring young wife (Dakota Mackey-McGee) reiterates it in a heartbreaking monologue of her own.

Falstaff — one of Shakespeare’s most memorable creations — never believed in heroism to begin with. DeBruno cuts a commanding figure, imposing in voice as well as girth, and when he talks about “honor” he sucks the wind out of the word. Falstaff is a drinker and a womanizer, a liar and a thief — but we know why Hal hangs out with him. Falstaff sees through the lies that society tells.

Veteran festival-goers admire Butz, who played Marc Antony in “Julius Caesar” and the title role in “Hamlet,” as an exceptionally lucid actor. But Hal is hardly a lucid character.

In his first big speech, he informs us that he behaves badly so that later, when he reforms, his goodness will shine brighter. Later, in a confrontation that crackles with emotion, he promises his father the same thing. And by the end, when he ascends the throne, he sternly warns Falstaff to “presume not that I am the thing I was.”

That’s some challenge: a role that changes like opals. But at every turn — battling with Hotspur, playing a trick on Falstaff, kneeling in tears at Henry’s bedside — Butz delivers a clear, absolutely persuasive Hal in that exact moment.

With the support of the many other first-rate performers, Butz and Ocel take Henry IV beyond the traditions it draws on, the war play and the young man’s journey. This time, they tell a tougher story: Everybody’s struggle, and everybody’s journey, is his own.

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