Review: SFSL's 'Henry V' – Once More Into the Park, Dear Friends

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Continuing on their landmark two-play season, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has now opened “Henry V,” which will play in rotating repertory with “Henry IV” through June 15. The expansive production features top-shelf acting led by Jim Butz as Henry, vibrant battle scenes (including a brilliant slow-motion cinematic effect), one of Shakespeare’s best courtship scenes, and a realistic onstage hanging. Combine that with the Shakespeare Festival atmosphere, and it’s an evening of theater not soon forgotten.

Battle scene in "Henry V" Courtesy of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Battle scene in “Henry V”
Courtesy of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Further chronicling the story of Prince Hal—who in “Henry IV” transformed from a carousing prince into a king—“Henry V” follows the newly-crowned King (known as the Star of England) through the battle of Agincourt, where Henry defeated the French even though the English were significantly outnumbered.

Butz is powerful in the role, whether as the ruling king, a warrior on the battlefield, a leader pumping up his troops, or a man wooing a princess without the benefit of a shared common language. There are scenes that Butz breathes a new vibrancy and life into upon his entrance, lifting the scene to a higher artistic level. This is not to suggest the other cast members aren’t up to the same standards; they are.

Jim Butz as "Henry V" Courtesy of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz as “Henry V”
Courtesy of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Unlike “Henry IV,” “Henry V” utilizes a chorus, which is played by one actor, Anderson Matthews, who appears throughout the play, commenting on the story and filling in the blanks. Matthews—with his rich, resonant voice, is precise in his delivery and characterization, effectively bringing the audience into the play as active and interested participants.

Anderson Matthews as Chorus Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Anderson Matthews as Chorus
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

As King Henry, Butz is dynamic, and “Henry V” offers him plenty of opportunities to shine, including delivering one of Shakespeare’s most renowned monologues, the St. Crispin’s Day speech—“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”—as he’s motivating his troops. Another impressive moment comes as he woos the French-speaking Princess Katherine in a scene that stands out as one of Shakespeare’s best, though a little more seduction here would have been welcomed. As Katherine, Dakota Mackey-McGee is charm personified, and her earlier scene with her attendant maid Alice (Kelly Weber) where they are practicing English is a pure delight.

Kelly Weber and Dakota Mackey-McGee Courtesy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Kelly Weber and Dakota Mackey-McGee
Courtesy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Director Bruce Longworth deserves credit for the smooth unfurling of the story and for dozens of first-rate performances. Some of the notable turns are by actor Jerry Vogel whose swarthy blackguard Pistol returns from “Henry IV” with a more flushed out character; Antonio Rodriguez as a soldier and Dan Haller as Falstaff’s page. Charles Pasternak, who so impressed as Hotspur in “Henry IV,” returns in two roles.

Longworth also pulls off a stunning but all too brief effect during a battle scene where upstage actors are bathed in fog and colored lights (by lighting designer John Wylie) as they fight in slow-motion, while the fighting downstage is in regular motion. The impressive effect magniifies the scope of the scene, prompting viewers to imagine the great expanse of the battlefield far beyond the confines of Scott C. Neale’s clever stage. It was as though the play turned into a film for that brief interlude.

The first two-play season by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is, by every conceivable measure, a triumph and every St. Louisan should not miss this rare opportunity for the extremely high-quality free Shakespeare in the Park.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ productions of “Henry IV” and “Henry V” run in repertory through June 15, 2014. Catch both shows on the same days on consecutive double-feature Saturdays, June 7 and June 14. For more information, visit the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis website.

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