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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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Henry IV
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Ocel
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 17, 2014

Jim Butz Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has pulled out all the stops this year. In an ambitious new move, SFSTL has decided to present two plays this year in Forest Park instead of one, as they have every previous year. Technically speaking, it’s actually three plays, presented as two productions. While Henry V is due to open next week in Shakespeare Glen, this week marks the premiere of a condensed version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2, adapted by director Tim Ocel into a single presentation that tells its story very well.  Majoring on the story of Prince Hal (Jim Butz) and his journey from profligate prince to responsible King, this production takes a story out of history and instills it with a sense of immediacy and humanity.

Based in history and immortalized in Shakespeare’s legendary dramatization, Henry IV tells the story of the titular King (Michael James Read) and his rocky relationship with his son Hal as well as his struggle to retain his throne against a challenge led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Charles Pasternak), the son of the King’s former ally, the Earl of Northumberland (Joneal Joplin).  While Hotspur shows ambition and drive, King Henry laments that his own son spends much of his time carousing in taverns with the vainglorious and irresponsible Sir John Falstaff (Tony DeBruno) and his rowdy gang of ruffians.  Although the play is named after the King, the real central figure in this presentation is Prince Hal, as he faces the choice between remaining in his partying ways or taking up the responsibility as heir to the throne and joining with his father in defending against Hotspur’s rebellion.

Casting must have been a challenge in this production, since many of the actors take multiple roles, often with great contrast. Jerry Vogel, for instance, is nearly unrecognizable between his two excellent portrayals of the King’s loyal ally, the noble Sir Walter Blunt, and of one of Falstaff’s cronies, the coarse Pistol. Alex Miller, as both the jolly Bardolph and the warlike Earl of Douglas, also does an excellent job of creating two distinct and vivid characters.  Various of the more minor roles are also doubled up, and some performers who have one prominent role also show up occasionally in minor roles, such as Dakota Mackey-McGee, who plays Hotspur’s wife, Kate, and Kelley Weber, who plays Lady Northumberland. Both also appear as nameless women who hang out with Hal and Falstaff in the tavern scenes.  Overall, it’s a very cohesive ensemble with excellent work all around, helping create a mood of warlike seriousness in the battle scenes as well as unrefined jollity in the tavern sequences.

The four key players here do not alternate roles, however, and their casting is impeccable.  Butz, in particular, will play continue to play the same character in the next production, Henry V, as well.  A consummate Shakespearean, Butz has the commendable gift of being able to emphasize the humanity in some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters, making them instantly relatable.  His Hal is alternately charming, vacillating, confused, sincere, and ultimately resolutely determined.  His command of Shakespeare’s dialogue is strong, and he even manages to vary the pitch of his voice gradually as Hal takes on more responsibility, taking on a richer, more regal tone in later scenes.  Pasternak, as Hal’s rival Hotspur, is a dynamic presence, always moving and full of energy and fiery charisma.  It’s easy to understand why he would be able to lead a rebellion. His climactic duel with Butz’s Hal is a dramatic highlight, as is his earlier scene of belligerent chemistry with Mackey-McGee as his insecure but outspoken wife.  Pasternak is new to St. Louis theatre, and he makes a very strong impression.

As Hal’s competing father figures, Reed and DeBruno are also excellent.  Reed’s Henry is suitably authoritative but also clearly insecure as well, and alternating disappointment and trust of his son are truthfully portrayed, especially in one scene near the end of the production in which Henry’s health is failing and Hal must seriously consider the impending reality of both the loss of his father and the responsibility of the throne.  As Falstaff, DeBruno isn’t quite as bombastic as other actors I’ve seen in the role, although he remains a strong and constant presence, at once endearing, brash and cowardly, as he plots intrigues with his cronies, verbally spars with the determined tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Kari Ely), or tries to stay out of too much trouble during the inevitable battle. His scenes with Butz are especially brilliant, particularly in the scene where Falstaff and Hal take turns imitating King Henry, challenging the nature of their relationship to one another and to the King.

The overall look and feel of this production is decidedly stark and martial, with its booming soundtrack of warlike drums and Scott C. Neale’s simple set with thematic elements of iron and stone, and Dottie Marshall Englis’s richly detailed costumes add to the historic tone of the piece. The fight scenes are well choreographed by Paul Denhardt, with the battle scenes being a major dramatic highlight of this production. Ocel has managed to find just the right balance between the poignant drama, chaotic battle scenes, and rowdy comic relief. Hal’s journey from reluctant Prince to square-shouldered King is portrayed clearly and with riveting energy.

As epic as this installment of Hal’s journey is, however, this is only the beginning. Next week, the story continues with Henry V, and the plays will then be presented on alternating evenings for the rest of the run.  With such a profoundly moving, thoroughly engaging production as this, I find myself even more eagerly looking forward to the next part.  SFSTL has undertaken a momentous challenge in this latest project, and so far, they have more than lived up to their promise to deliver a timeless and timely, immensely satisfying and thought-provoking representation of one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated historical works.

Jim Butz, Tony DeBruno, Kari Ely, Alex Miller Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz, Tony DeBruno, Kari Ely, Alex Miller
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

 

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Freud’s Last Session

by Mark St. Germain

Suggested by The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

Directed by Michael Evan Haney

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio Theatre

November 3, 2013

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Two famous 20th Century intellectuals—known for their widely opposing viewpoints—meet for conversation, debate, and a few personal revelations on an afternoon in London at the beginning of World War II.  This is the premise for Freud’s Last Session, the latest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre.  Even though the depicted meeting of famed psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud with Christian apologist and writer C. S. Lewis is fabricated for the play and never actually took place, this well-realized and brilliantly cast production makes me wish that it had actually happened. 

While this play is inspired by a series of (hypothetical) debates, the structure of it is much more of a conversation than a debate, and the aim seems to be to accurately portray Freud’s and Lewis’s views, but also show them as real men with strengths and weakness as opposed to idealizations. While I went into this play knowing a lot more about Lewis than about Freud, I learned a lot about both men. Ostensibly a conversation about their different views on the existence of God, the discussion also drifts into topics of war, music, sex, suicide, both men’s relationships with their fathers, and more.  It’s a play that can very easily seem didactic and dry without the right staging and cast, but this production is so fully realized that it brings these characters and their time and setting to life and a vivid and emotionally engaging way.   These men are both brilliant intellectuals, but on opposing sides and still fascinated to learn about one another, and how their experiences shaped their beliefs.

The casting is nothing short of ideal.  Mulholland portrays the elderly, physically declining Freud as unfailingly curious intellectually, but in a more agressive and confrontational manner than Butz’s more gentle and inquiring Lewis. Suffering from terminal mouth cancer and dealing with bouts of extreme pain as well as reflecting on various regrets and life experiences, Mulholland portrays a Freud who is at once determined and weary, displaying his frailty physically in his slightly hunched-over posture shuffling gait, but displaying a strong energy in his speech, and a tendency to get carried away with his ideas, and and  and very curious about Lewis’s relatively new-found faith. Butz, in turn, plays Lewis in all of his complexity as well, as a man eager to learn more about life, and in a sense of continued wonder about his reluctant but joyful conversion.  He is all politeness and a little bit of trepidation at first, but soon is every bit as energetic as Freud.  I think the interaction between these two brilliant actors portraying two brilliant thinkers is the high point of this play.  Both men play off of each other expertly, and their intellectual sparring and witty banter, as well as some highly emotional moments as Freud reflects on his mortality and Lewis recalls the horrors of his experiences in World War I, bring depth to these characters and make them real for the audience.  This also is the most sympathetic portrayal of Freud in particular that I’ve ever seen. Lewis has had his dramatic representation in the play and movies of Shadowlands, but this  play show a younger, even more idealistic Lewis. This isn’t just an exercise in historical fantasy with these two actors. They bring a sense of depth and immediacy to the proceedings that is fascinating to witness.  

The production brings the audience into a fully realized experience of the time and place, as well.  Freud’s London study is brought to life by set designers Peter and Margery Spack, well appointed with books, various religious artifacts (which Freud collects), cluttered desk and the iconic analyst’s couch.  The costumes, designed by  Elizabeth Eisloeffel help to define both the time period and the specific personalities of the characters–the older, formally dressed Freud in his three-piece suit and the younger, more laid-back Lewis in his sweater and sport coat.  The 1930’s flavor is also enhanced by the use of music, authentic-sounding radio broadcasts updating the progress of the war, and other elements (air raid sirens, gas masks) emphasizing the looming threat of violence and uncertainty in the lives of Londoners of the day. It’s a trip back in time, and a completely engaging one.

As for the issues presented in this play, the goal doesn’t seem to be convincing the audience to believe one way or the other. In the vividly realized characterizations, both Freud and Lewis are firmly convinced, and neither is likely to change his mind as a result of one afternoon’s conversation, and I don’t think anyone in the audience (whether they side with Freud or Lewis, or otherwise) will change their opinion either, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that thinking people of drastically differing viewpoints can engage each other respectfully and honestly, and grow to respect and even admire one another despite their disagreements and maybe even learn more about themselves and their world in the process.  I think that’s a valuable lesson in any age, even if the actual meeting that is presented here is imaginary.  That message is communicated with much poignancy in the superb performances of Butz and Mulholland, and in the strong presentation and staging of this excellent and thought-provoking production.

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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