Among our great rites of spring is Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, which this year presents its most ambitious season to date, mounting both Henry IV, which opened last weekend in Forest Park's Shakespeare Glen, and Henry V, which opens this Saturday.
Henry IV is in fact two plays, which together tell the story of Prince Hal, the prodigal son of Henry IV, who redeems himself during a civil war and is later crowned Henry V. There's a lot of material here, and director Tim Ocel has cut mightily from the Henry IV: Part One and Two (though particularly from Part Two), condensing them into a single three-hour spectacle.
The effect makes for a fun night out, as Ocel has retained many of the plays' best moments, recounting how Henry IV (an imperious Michael James Reed), goes to war against the Percy family (led by a fiery Hotspur in Charles Pasternak), who deny Henry's right to the crown and would rule in his stead. Henry admires young Hotspur for his nobility of spirit, comparing him favorably to his crapulous son Hal (a wily Jim Butz), who spends his days drinking and joking with the witty but dissolute Falstaff (a hilarious Tony DeBruno). Hal may be a drunkard, but he's not without a plan, claiming that his reformation will be all the more remarkable for the depths of his depravity. His deliverance finally comes in battle, when he saves his father's life and eventually slays Hotspur. But the victory is short lived: His father eventually succumbs to illness and Hal is crowned Henry V.
Performing against the backdrop of Scott C. Neale's multi-tiered set, the cast is at its best during moments of levity as Hal and Falstaff drink with their friend Poins (Andrew Michael Neiman) in Eastcheap. The battle scenes are marvelously choreographed as whole armies take to the stage, and Falstaff, a self-preservationist if ever there was one, plays dead on the battlefield before claiming to have slain Hotspur.
The play's famous monologues are crisply given, as Henry wrestles with the burden of ruling ("uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"), and Falstaff ponders the futility of honor ("discretion is the better part of valor"). All of which is immeasurably helpful, clarifying the play's somewhat convoluted plot for an audience that's spread out across the glen and might be distracted by an impatient child, a plate of funnel cake, or, as Falstaff would have it, a glass of sack.