By Richard Ades
Central Ohio Shakespeare fans currently have an embarrassment of riches. Besides Josh Whedon’s wonderful film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, they have three outdoor theater productions to choose from.
If you’re serious about the Bard, your best bet may be the work you’re probably the least familiar with: Henry IV, Part One. Yes, it’s a history play, but you don’t have to know your Tudors from your Plantagenets to enjoy it. That’s because the central character is a timeless archetype: a son who’s torn between his father’s expectations and his own fun-loving inclinations.
The son is Prince Hal, who likes nothing better than to spend his days drinking and getting into mischief with his tavern buddies, especially the disreputable but somehow lovable Sir John Falstaff. Hal’s lifestyle is extremely troubling to his father, King Henry IV, especially after sundry noblemen begin plotting against the crown.
Will Hal step up to his princely duties in time to help his father survive the threat to his reign? You could cheat by looking it all up on Wikipedia, but it’s more fun to watch the tale unfold on the New Players stage.
Directed by the Bard-literate Robert Behrens, the production benefits from a trio of great performances.
John Tener is a delight as Falstaff, an oversized and comical character who proved so popular that Shakespeare brought him back in two subsequent adventures. As Hal, David Tull is a nice blend of youthful indiscretion and innate decency.
In the scenes revolving around the developing revolt, Rick Clark’s Henry has a rather uncommanding presence, but Chris Austin gives a charismatic and powerful performance as the hot-tempered rebel known as Hotspur. Also making a strong impression, though he ventures right to the edge of a Scottish stereotype in the process, is Scott Willis as the Earl of Douglas.
The talk of rebellion eventually explodes into actual combat, and Behrens makes the most of it with well-staged action scenes involving swords, quarterstaffs and fisticuffs.
It’s noteworthy that, of the three local Shakespeare productions, Henry IV is the only one that isn’t updated. However, that doesn’t mean costume designer Natalie Cagle is a stickler for historical correctness. The men look vaguely 15th-century, but some of the women flit about in short skirts or dresses. One gets the impression that Cagle had to pull out all the creative stops in order to clothe the cast on a limited budget.
Scenic designer Peter Pauze also had to make do with more creativity than cash, it appears. Sometimes the scene changes involve such minor alterations that they hardly seem worth the effort. Still, the choreographed changes are performed with so much spirit that they’re fun to watch.
Anyway, the costumes and scenery are almost beside the point. What makes the production fun is the joy and devotion that Tener, Tull and the rest of the cast bring to this seldom-seen gem from the Shakespeare canon.
Note: New Players Theater is presenting Henry IV, Party One in repertory with The Taming of the Shrew (see previous review). The third local Shakespeare production is Actors’ Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night (review to come).
New Players Theatre will present Henry IV, Part One through July 28 at the Mill Run Amphitheater (behind Church at Mill Run), 3500 Mill Run Drive, Hilliard. Show times are 8 p.m. July 5, 13-14, 18 and 25-28. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes (including intermission). Offered on alternate evenings is The Taming of the Shrew, which will be presented at 8 p.m. June 30, July 6-7, 11-12 and 19-21. Tickets: Pay what you will (bring a blanket or lawn chair); “premium reserved seats” also available with reservations. 614-874-6783 or newplayers.org.