Review: Shakespeare Festival's 'Henry IV' is a Game of Thrones
Watching Shakespeare Festival’s “Henry IV” and “Henry V” on successive nights is like binge-watching six episodes of “Game of Thrones,” except SFSTL is happening live, unfurling before your eyes with all the intrigue, action, and betrayal a lover of middle-age politics could want. Taken together, the plays tell the tale of the rise of Prince Hal from his misspent, carousing youth, to his noble ascension to the throne (Henry IV), and then through his reign as King (Henry V).
After wresting the crown from Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke has crowned himself Henry IV, but as the play begins, he faces rebellion from the Percys, a noble family that includes the hot-headed and valiant Hotspur. The King laments that his own son is not more like Hotspur, and even goes as far to say he wished they had been switched at birth. That’s a pretty strong declaration against a son. Thus, the story is set and we will be witness to Prince Hal’s reformation, his redemption in the eyes of the King, and his inevitable meeting with Hotspur—his rival for his father’s admiration—on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, back in Eastcheap at the Boar’s Head Inn, Prince Hal (Jim Butz) is carousing with a questionable cast of characters led by Sir John Falstaff (Tony DeBruno), one of Shakespeare’s great comedic characters, along with Ned Poins (Andrew Michael Neiman) Mistress Quickly (Kari Ely), and other rapscallions who provide the comic relief.
Tim Ocel’s direction is sure handed, and he has excelled at making the story precise and clear, along with steady pacing that keeps the audience’s rapt attention. He’s also drawn some very fine performances from his cast.
The real triumph of the production is the clarity with which the story is told. Even those not familiar with Shakespeare’s language won’t have too much trouble understanding what’s going on, thanks to the direction and quality performances throughout the cast, but particularly the four primary characters. Michael James Reed as Henry IV is regal, but shows the weight of kingship in his physicality, and we sense his end is near. When Butz as Prince Hal promises his father he will transform from rapscallion to royalty, we believe him and he doesn’t let us down, and neither does Butz in the role, skillfully guiding his character through his epic rebirth. Charles Pasternak as Hotspur sweeps across the stage during his rants, his barely-contained anger threatening to blow through his skin. DeBruno as Falstaff avoids the trap of over-playing and turning the character into a cartoon, instead letting Shakespeare’s lines do their work.
The strong supporting cast featured several fine performances, particularly from Andrew Michael Neiman as Ned Poins, and Kari Ely as Mistress Quickly, who is a delight to watch. Also Dakota Mackey-McGee was compelling as Lady Percy.
Scott C. Neale’s set rises from the ground like a multilevel monolith, cold and imposing. Dottie Marshall Englis’ costumes were leather and more leather, giving the play a sort of Road Warrior masculinity, while Matthew Lealon Young’s lighting design and Rusty Wandall’s sound design served the play well, noting that the actors were easily heard and understood.
It is a great thing to have free Shakespeare in the park. When that Shakespeare is good, well-acted Shakespeare, it’s something special.
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.