Baughman Theatre - Jackson MI
Village Theater of Cherry Hill - Canton, MI
"This isn’t the first production that combines the two full-length historical dramas into one marathon evening, but few have done so this smartly." - Detroit Free Press
"There is no excuse for not seeing what remains the area’s best and most consistent staging of history's greatest playwright." - Detroit Free Press
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Michigan Shakespeare Festival
Shakespeare Fest’s ‘Henry IV’ is a memorable marathon - John Monaghan, The Detroit Free Press
4 Stars out of 4 Stars
The humor, personal drama and spectacle of “Henry IV,” parts 1 and 2, are all on display in the new production of Henry IV at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival.
This isn’t the first production that combines the Bard’s two full-length historical dramas into one marathon evening, but few have done so this smartly. Director Janice Blixt and her talented 20-person ensemble mold what could have been an unwieldy show into something at once understandable, moving and, at 3 hours and 12 minutes, not all that taxing to sit through.
The focus here is not so much on the title character as his son, Prince Hal (Shawn Pfautsch), who is later immortalized in his own play, “Henry V.” As a young man, he is not so much prepping for the throne as sowing his wild oats, usually in the company of Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball), a rascal four times his age and at least three times his size.
David Turrentine plays the reigning king, who is obviously concerned about his son. He is also dealing with insurrection in his kingdom and an upcoming battle in which Hal will get a chance to prove his worth.
Those battle scenes are masterfully choreographed by David Blixt, who uses every inch of his large, open stage. Jeromy Hopgood’s scenic design is sparse and no-nonsense, with heavy moving pieces wheeled across the stage and panels lowered from the rafters, giving the stage added dimension.
Pfautsch, who made a good Hamlet last year, is even better as Hal. A favorite scene has him play-acting an upcoming exchange he will have with the king. As both he and Falstaff adopt the various roles, the scene speaks volumes about their self-image. Hal shows that he understands his father’s disapproval, and Falstaff displays an ego as big as he is.
Of course, Falstaff is not altogether fool as he proves in a soliloquy about honor that precedes the bloody conflict that caps the first half.
Festival regular Alan Ball is delightful as Falstaff. To make up for the weight difference between actor and character, costume designer Lauren Montgomery fashions a hooped affair beneath his loosely fitting tunic that he manipulates convincingly for even bigger laughs.
There are also standouts in the supporting roles, including fest newcomer Milan Malisic as a hot-blooded Hotspur, one of the leaders of the insurrection. His showdown with Hal is expertly staged, as are romantic scenes with wife Kate, played by recent Hilberry grad Annie Keris, holding her own in what has always been an extremely male-dominated outing.
“Henry IV” also includes the welcome return of Edmund Alyn Jones, another Hilberry alum, who plays the king’s loyal counselor, Westmoreland. As with Turrentine’s Henry, Jones has his best scenes in the second half of the play.
If the end of the show is rather anticlimactic (at least compared with the battle scenes that end “Part 1”), it nonetheless packs a punch. Adapter Blixt doesn’t miss a word in the final exchange between the current and future king. This production left me hoping that the fest soon tackles “Henry V,” hopefully with much the same cast.
While I saw “Henry IV” at the Shakespeare fest’s longtime home in Jackson, the production arrives next week at the Village Theater in Canton. For those who have stayed away because of distance, there is now no excuse for not seeing what remains the area’s best and most consistent staging of history's greatest playwright.
Shakespeare like you've never seen... really! - Bridgette M. Redman, EncoreMichigan
It’s no exaggeration to say you haven’t seen this Shakespeare play before.
Janice L Blixt, artistic director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival, has combined Henry IV parts 1 and 2 into a single play, Henry IV, and put it up on the stage in a three-hour span. Epic in scale, the history takes the audience from the throne room of London to the battlefields of the North, with Scottish lords joining English ones in rebellion.
Blixt directs this adaptation with a cast of 19. It’s a cast from which much is demanded and more is given. Blixt knows how to double her cast and keep them coming back to fully populate Henry’s England. She also keeps the pace marching forward with actors filling the stage and finding humor amid the seriousness of the story.
In this adaptation, the emphasis is put on Prince Hal and his relationship with his father. Prince Hal, played by Shawn Pfautsch, is dissolute and given much to women and wine. While his father, played by David Turrentine, is heavy with the affairs of state and given to distemper and anger, young Hal is caught up in pranks with Sir John Falstaff (Alan Ball) and his companions.
Yet, when war catches up to the kingdom and young Hotspur (Milan Malisic) leads armies in revolt, Hal steps up to prove his worthiness to his father.
Turrentine is regal as the aging king and gives stature to the king’s tempers. This is no common man engaging in a rage. Turrentine carries Henry with a dignity that sets him apart from his lords and the few commoners that populate the play. He is always grave and worn with care. We see the greatest depth in his Henry during his death scene where he goes from berating his son to giving him his blessing and wishing peace for his reign.
Pfautsch brings great charisma to Hal. He’s a rapscallion who is as carefree as his father is laden. He imbues the young prince with humors that make him a stranger to his father, though there are visions in him of the king he will become. His opening scene, taking place in a large bed, establish him as a playboy given over to pranks and hedonism. Pfautsch easily handles both the roustabout and the more princely Hal, reconciling them in a way that is credible.
Malisic’s Hotspur has the temper of the king and the youth of the prince. He is a young lion who suffers no pretense or disagreement. He reveals this temper well in the scene following his audience with the king where he shows himself disobedient to the king’s will and determined to flaunt the king’s orders. Even his friend and kin, who is sympathetic to his rant, cannot calm him or distract him with talk of plans.
It is in the two Henry plays that Queen Elizabeth famously fell in love with Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight who leads Hal astray and is notorious in his tale-telling and lies. He disrespects everyone but still manages to entertain his comrades. In this version, Ball dons the fat suit and is Hal’s disreputable companion. Falstaff follows Hal to war and reveals himself a coward incapable of great deeds. Yet, Ball gives the audience reason to like Falstaff—not for any noble characteristics, but because he is honest with us about honor, greed and selfishness.
And for those who attend Shakespeare because they like the sword fighting, Henry IV won’t disappoint. This is a war play and the first act ends with a great battle that brings out the whole company for intensive sword fights that range from single duels to large-scale group battles. Fight Director David Blixt (who also plays Owain Glyndwr, Douglas and the Archbishop of York) choreographs an exciting battle that encompasses several fighting styles from great-sword to axe to sword and shield.
If there is a flaw in this production, it comes in the two plays together. After the huge battle, there is a resolution and intermission comes at a time that feels like an ending, in part because it is. The conflict is over, father and son are reconciled, enemies are slain and Falstaff is shown to again be ridiculous. There is no compelling reason for the play to continue and post-intermission feels like starting over. The story is repeating itself and the audience must once again reinvest itself in a story that feels resolved.
This is especially true for the main theme of the play—the relationship between father and son. The tension between them dissipates at the end of the first half, as Hal proves himself on the battlefield and gives his father reason to be proud of him. But then things pick up after intermission with Hal back in the tavern and his father once again disapproving. The strength of this play is in the first half, though the ending of the second half does draw things back into a sharp focus with the transformation of Hal from prince to king.
Anyone who has attended the Michigan Shakespeare Festival knows that it spares nothing in its production values to bring on the highest quality shows. The design team is as committed to storytelling as the artistic team and this is certainly true with Henry IV. Scenic Designer Jeromy Hopgood is able to take the audience from battlefield to throne-room to tavern with backdrops that fly in and furniture the cast rolls in before their scene. The furnishings are heavy and thick, speaking to the seriousness and weight of the play’s matters.
Lauren Montgomery is detailed in her costume design, particularly with the boots and the armor that combatants wear. Once again original music is provided by composer Kate Hopgood and she creates a soundtrack that is epic in scale and sets the mood for this brutal war story.
It isn’t often that Henry IV is performed—either part one or part two. This production is populated with fine storytellers who all work seamlessly together—from every foot soldier to each designer and tech to the leads—each person gives a fully committed performance that tells the story of Henry and Hal, and the kingdom that each bear responsibility for.