When the Kentucky Classical Theater Conservatory stepped in to take over for the defunct Lexington Shakespeare Festival in 2007, people wondered what would become of Lexington's decades-old commitment to outdoor Shakespeare. Would KCTC's Summerfest make it? Would it be as good? Time would tell.
Three seasons in, a strong opening-night performance of Henry IV, Part 1 suggests that Summerfest is not only going strong, it is coming into its own, not unlike the play's young Prince of Wales who struggles for — and later earns — his father's respect.
Watching one of Shakespeare's rarely produced histories can be intimidating for audiences used to more popular Elizabethan fare, like Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I admit to worrying whether Henry IV would entertain as much as it instructs.
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From technical achievements to directorial choices to a cast that could be mistaken for a seasoned company, this production of Henry IV, Part 1 is rock solid.
Director Joe Ferrell's steady-handed direction and the cast's careful execution of sharply hewn characters are always in command of the material, making for an accessible drama that becomes more engrossing as the play progresses toward its climax.
Particularly rewarding are the interrelationships of three primary characters, King Henry IV, his son Hal (a young Henry V), and the rebel Hotspur.
As the play opens, King Henry laments his son's proclivity for hanging out with lowlifes and thieves, going so far as to wish aloud that Hal was more like the courageous warrior Hotspur. But when Hotspur gathers forces to rebel against the king, whose right to the throne is questioned, Henry and Hal repair their relationship by — what else? — going to war.
Eric Johnson as Henry, Trent Fucci as Hal and Jack McIntyre as Hotspur deserve praise for their energetic and nuanced performances. Easily a highlight of the show, Fucci and McIntyre's fight scene late in the second act is fierce, acrobatic and brilliantly choreographed by Henry Layton.
Central to the tale is Hal's coming of age from boy to man, hapless prince to king in the making. One pivotal scene in Act 1 occurs after Hal and his friend have played a hilarious trick on Falstaff, the wisdom- dispensing thief, when the mirth is interrupted by news from the king. The scene's jubilance evaporates, and there is a silent, significant moment when Hal realizes the gravity of his position as prince. In a sense, we literally see him become a young man.
Of course, no Henry IV is complete without perennial audience favorite Falstaff, played by Walter Tunis, a contributing writer for the Herald-Leader. As the aging ringleader of Hal's low-brow pals, Falstaff provides a kind of working-class foil to the life of nobility that is Hal's destiny. His character is the chief source of the play's humor and in some cases, well-spun wisdom. Tunis' portrayal of Falstaff is deeply satisfying, if a departure from the more whimsical portrayal one might expect. He's easily winded, often drunk, constantly lying and full of heart and a strange thieve's loyalty, but there remains something a little sad, a little piteous about him. His monologue about the uselessness of honor in the second act is a poignant reminder of the senselessness of war.
It would be remiss not to mention this play's technical achievements. Missy Johnston's costuming is lush and beautifully detailed, even from far away. And sound manager Richard Jones made sure we could hear the actors' every breath and line with a clarity not always present in previous productions.
Summerfest should be proud for so finely introducing Lexington audiences to one of Shakespeare's most lauded histories.