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Henry V
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 24, 2014

Henry V Cast Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Henry V Cast
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s ambitious 2014 summer season continues this week with another thrilling production of one of Shakespeare’s best-known history plays, brought to glorious life by the same excellent cast and, aside from a new director in Bruce Longworth, the same crew that presented last week’s wonderful Henry IV, which will now be shown in alternating performances with this week’s equally wonderful installment, Henry V. This latest installment is every bit as impressive as the first. It’s big, it’s grand, it’s magnificently realized, and it’s positively heroic in scale.

The profligate Prince Hal from the first part of Henry IV is now long gone, and he has matured into the newly crowned Henry V, still played with strength and magnetism by Jim Butz.  In this installment, Henry is given the hero treatment, as he takes his armies to France to lay claim to the French throne, and the tone of the piece is triumphant and heroic, with the rich-voiced Anderson Matthews serving as the Chorus and narrating the action in epic terms. Butz and Matthews anchor this production and set its tone, as Henry shows both his regal bearing and his humanity as he deals with treasonous plots, mingles with his troops, encourages his soldiers and commanders as he prepares to lead them into battle, delivers the famous “Once more into the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” speeches with presence and authority, and finally courts the French Princess Katherine (Dakota Mackey-McGee) in a positively delightful scene at the play’s conclusion.  All the while, Matthews majestically and boldly recounts the King’s adventures with a rich and glorious voice, and the rest of the play’s characters’ lives intersect with Henry’s in various intriguing ways, from the noble and challenged French King (Joneal Joplin) to the pompous Dauphin (Charles Pasternak), to the earnest French herald Montjoy (also Matthews), to Henry’s former drinking buddies, the opportunistic and amoral Pistol (Jerry Vogel), Bardolph (Alex Miller) and Nym (Gary Glasgow) and Pistol’s young Page (Dan Haller), who is increasingly disillusioned with his employer and seeks to follow the King’s example.

In addition to the magnificent performances by Butz and Matthews, the cast is in top form, as a few of the players return to the parts they played in Henry IV, but most take on new roles. Vogel is even more impressive this time as Pistol, clearly portraying the character’s shifty opportunism as well as his attachment to his family and friends. Pasternak is suitably brash and affected as the over-confident Dauphin, and Tony DeBruno, Drew Battles, Andrew Michael Neiman and Glasgow are excellent as some of  King Henry’s proudly patriotic officers. DeBruno, as the Welsh Captain Fluellen, is particularly memorable. Also notable are Haller in an impressive performance as the idealistic young Page, Mackey-McGee as an especially witty Princess Katherine and Kelley Webber as her faithful attendant Alice. There is not a single weak-link in this ensemble, and many performers shift seamlessly between various roles as the story unfolds.

Technically, the heightened, more epic tone of this piece is well-reflected, with the same set (designed by Scott C. Neale) being put to use in different ways than before, as a giant English flag is unfurled as a backdrop on one side of the stage, and actors use every inch of the space (even the very top of the set, as the battlements of a walled city) and Matthews as the Chorus makes his entrances in various creative ways.  John Wylie’s  lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound is put to excellent use in the battle scenes, with slow motion-style fighting brilliantly choreographed by Paul Dennhardt to achieve just the right balance between chaos and order.  Bold battle drums and stirring music by Gregg Coffin effectively punctuate the scenes, as well.

Even with the intensity of the war scenes, the chilling brutality of one scene involving a hanging, and the somber and contemplative aftermath of the climactic battle , the overall tone is one of Henry as a heroic figure and a worthy leader and representative of his country.  He is the triumphant leader, but he is not superhuman, and his humanity is underscored throughout. Butz is an ideal Henry, ably supported by the entire impeccable cast, guided by Longworth’s sure-handed direction.  It’s a fitting companion piece to the equally brilliant Henry IV and a truly triumphant success for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

Anderson Matthews Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Anderson Matthews
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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Free Shakespeare is always a wonderful thing as far as I’m concerned, and Shakespeare Festival St. Louis provides this in so many great ways. After seeing the wonderful Shakespeare in the Streets production, Old Hearts Fresh, over the weekend and then hearing the exciting news about their main stage production(s) for next year.  Their latest announcement is very ambitious, to say the least.

Next summer, SFSTL will be presenting a first for them–rather than one play, the Festival will be presenting three!  Over the course of two nights, SFSTL will present Shakespeare’s histories Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.  The plays will be presented in two nights with the same cast and set, repeating throughout the season in Forest Park.  This is amazing news!  These plays are so connected that it makes sense to perform them together, and the idea of being able spend two evenings enjoying free Shakespeare in the park sounds wonderful. It looks like it’s going to be an exciting season.

Now,  let me tell you about the excellent show I saw last weekend:

Old Hearts Fresh

by Nancy Bell

based on The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alex Wild

September 21, 2013

oldheartsfresh1

Shakespeare in the Streets in the Grove neighborhood was a resounding success. My only concern is that I wish the audiences could have been bigger. It was a good turnout, as a crowd of a few hundred assembled in folding chairs on the asphalt of the closed-off Manchester Avenue, but I wish more had been able to witness the fun, clever and thought-provoking fusion of classic Shakespeare and modern St. Louis in such a unique presentation.

Old Hearts Fresh only ran for about an hour, but playwright Nancy Bell was able to condense and update the material with surprising thoroughness—not just name-dropping places and events from the neighborhood (although there is plenty of that), but delving into the neighborhood’s history and psychology, all the while telling the story of The Winter’s Tale (with elements of Pericles) in an updated fashion with a mixture of Shakespearean and modern language.

The story is The Winter’s Tale condensed, with Leontes’ (Drew Battles) irrational jealousy and false accusation of his wife Hermione’s (Jacqueline Thompson) supposed infidelity with his childhood friend Polixenes (Antonio Rodriguez), who is gay in this production, which makes Leontes’ jealousy even more irrational. This jealousy leads to tragedy and regret, and leaves a lost daughter Perdita (played as a teenager by Wendy Greenwood) to be raised by a stranger (Don McClendon as Old Shepherd), and cause Leontes’ the dwell in sorrow and regret for sixteen years, only for events to finally resolve in a fantastical manner at the end. In the midst of all of this interaction is the character of Paulina (Marty Casey), a long-time Grove resident and friend of Leontes’ who helps to tell the tale and bring about its uplifting conclusion.

Time and change are big themes here, with Time represented as a larger-than-life character wonderfully played by local drag performer Michael Shreves in character as “Michelle McCausland”. In an array of colorful outfits and with an attitude and presence as big and colorful as the neighborhood itself, Shreves puts in a winning performance and narrates the action of the show that portrays themes of forgiveness, racial and familial reconicilation, and communication as the three main characters represent that passage of time. Paulina represents the neighborhood’s past, Leontes represents the present, and Perdita (along with the rest of the children and teens) represents its future, and all three of these characters are portrayed wonderfully by their actors. I was especially struck by Battles’ ability to make Leontes sympathetic despite some of his highly questionable actions, as well as Casey’s solidly grounding performance as the voice of reason, and Greenwood’s hopeful optimism. The entire cast, including several Grove residents with little to no acting experience, was excellent, and the ensemble chemistry and enthusiasm was readily apparent.

I loved the atmosphere of this show, as well, and the live music directed by Nathan Hershey added to the mood of the piece, as did the use of projections of photos of the neighbhorhood’s past, and the spectacular mural by local artist Grace McCammond.  It was all very distinctly Shakespeare, but also very St. Louis at the same time.  It was an impressive production and I found myself hoping Shakespeare in the Streets will come to my own neighborhood in the near future.

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For more information about SFSTL’s 2014 season, check out their website in the sidebar of this blog

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