Story: King Henry IV, formerly Henry (of) Bolingbroke of the House of Plantagenet, has become king of England following the deposition of his cousin, Richard II, circa 1399. All is not well, however, as Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland and a leader in Henry IV’s army, becomes increasingly disenchanted with the king’s treatment of his family. Hotspur, his father and his uncle, the Earl of Worcester, decide to rebel against the ruler.
Henry IV leads his troops, including his courageous sons Hal and John, into battle against Hotspur. Henry is encouraged by Hal’s valiant behavior, as the lad often has been in the company of the wastrel Sir John Falstaff, a thief, liar and gluttonous buffoon. Hal slays Hotspur and then rescues his father from death in battle against Hotspur’s ally, the Earl of Douglas.
When Henry IV becomes ill and subsequently dies in 1413, his crown is passed along to Hal, who vows to rule England wisely.
Highlights: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, which made an auspicious debut in 2001 with a production of Romeo & Juliet, has steadily expanded its repertoire over the years, adding such projects as Shake38, Shakespeare in the Streets, Shakespeare in the School and other interpretations of The Bard, all absolutely free. This year, Shakespeare Festival has reached for another, most daunting achievement: Two productions being performed in repertory from May 15 through June 15.
Making the task even more challenging, artistic/executive director Rick Dildine, director Tim Ocel (helming Henry IV) and colleagues have combined Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II into one, three-hour production. This adaptation of Henry IV is being staged in repertory with the Festival’s version of Henry V, directed by new associate artistic director Bruce Longworth.
Not to worry, though. The 2014 festival has kicked off with a flourish with a sharp, incisive and resounding rendition of Henry IV, an exhilarating theatrical romp that is easy to appreciate and admire, even in the chilly weather on opening night.
Other Info: A testament to Ocel’s pinpoint, disciplined direction is the uniformly precise acting of his sizable troupe of players. Leading the way is Michael James Reed, whose clear, well-modulated voice brings both power and persuasion to the title role. Reed commands respect with his convincing portrayal of a multi-faceted king who contemplates his actions and his responsibilities to his people with a serious and sober sincerity.
Equally adept is Jim Butz in the role of Prince Hal, whose character has a more transformational arc from reckless youth to a young man whose maturity grows as he further understands his role and place in his time. The Bard certainly paints both Henry IV and Hal in mostly favorable hues, which Reed and Butz personify.
There is strong support by Charles Pasternak, virile and brave if also impetuous and quick-tempered as the fiery Hotspur. As Falstaff, Tony DeBruno fully conveys the ample braggadocio of the conniving knight, who puts considerable effort into avoiding his debts and taking false glory wherever he can steal it. As with the rest of the cast, DeBruno’s cadence clearly and cleanly reaches to the back of the audience.
Kari Ely delights as Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar’s Head Tavern where Falstaff enjoys regaling fellow drinkers almost as much as not paying his bills. Ely’s Quickly is nobody’s fool, giving as good as she gets with her roustabout patrons.
Joneal Joplin brings sagacity to the Earl of Northumberland and Anderson Matthews is cunningly convincing as his brother, the Earl of Worcester. Jerry Vogel is gallant as Sir Walter Blunt, Gary Glasgow is the proper Lord Chief Justice and James Hesse is noble Prince John.
Antonio Rodriguez and Leo Ramsey portray Henry IV’s other sons, the Duke of Gloucester and Duke of Clarence, respectively. Reginald Pierre is the Earl of Westmoreland and Drew Battles plays the Earl of Warwick, all fine performances. Dakota Mackey-McGee brings a passionate, electric portrayal of Hotspur’s wife, Kate, to the proceedings and Kelley Weber is reassuring as Lady Northumberland.
Alex Miller shines as Hotspur’s comrade, the Earl of Douglas, Chauncey Thomas resonates as Sir Richard Vernon and Eric Dean White is solid as Hotspur’s servant, Morton. Andrew Michael Neiman suitably fills the part of Falstaff’s pal, Ned Poins, with Mason Conrad and Dan Haller in smaller roles.
Spirited swordplay integral to battle scenes is effectively brought to life through Paul Dennhardt’s fight choreography on the bare expanse of a stage designed by Scott Neale, which emphasizes a series of steps before an imposing backdrop.
Matthew Lealon Young lights it all, composer Gregg Coffin adds some heart-pounding battle music and Rusty Wandall’s sound design complements the action. The costumes designed by Dorothy Marshall Englis convey the attire of the various classes of the time, apart from some bizarre leather accoutrements for Hotspur that seem out of place.
Ambitious and perhaps overwhelming for another company, this focused version of Henry IV gets the 2014 Shakespeare Festival off to an authoritative start.
Play: Henry IV
Group: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Venue: Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park near the Art Museum
Dates: May 25, 28, 30, June 1, 4, 6, 8, 11, 13
Tickets: Free admission
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of David Levy