IOWA CITY — Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre’s new producing artistic director, has proved himself all season long to be a director of great vision and artistry, equally adept at nurturing subtle nuances and mining the depths of despair.
He has wrapped all of that and more in “Henry VI, Part 1,” onstage Thursday (6/20) through Sunday (6/23) on the Riverside Festival Stage in Lower City Park. Patterned after London’s Globe Theatre, it’s the perfect space in which to stage hand-to-hand combat, drunken revelry, treason, rebellion and full-scale war.
It helps that Knight has an A-list cast and design team bringing a late 16th century play into an early 20th century setting easily understood by 21st century audiences — and then giving it all a great big twist.
The lead scalawag role of ne’er-do-well heir-apparent Hal, Prince of Wales, traditionally played by a man, sits beautifully within the passion and energy of Katy Hahn as Hal, Princess of Wales. With a touch of Joan of Arc, Hahn brings fire, determination and humanity to her quest to step outside the protective castle walls to study and mingle with commoners she may someday rule.
Alas, her father fears she has fallen into a life of drunken thievery, especially disarming as trouble is afoot in the kingdom, with rebel factions seeking to usurp the throne of England.
Tim Budd, one of the finest actors on the Corridor scene, brings frustration, intensity and devotion to the title role. Henry won the throne by deposing King Richard II, thus becoming the first person to ascend the throne without being born in an unbroken line of succession dating back to William the Conqueror. Henry feels the very real threat of history repeating itself.
This is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and as such, could lean toward being a tad dry and hard to understand. But not with this telling. Knight has set the action in the World War I era of great change, where women were coming to the fore, demanding rights alongside the men who have oppressed them.
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The rich Shakespearean text remains the same, but the parallels to modern woes can’t be denied, transcending time and place, making the humor and pathos relatable to modern viewers.
Humor abounds, thanks largely to Elliott Bales as fallen knight Sir John Falstaff, leader of a ragtag band of dimwitted thieves who offer comic relief throughout. Their physical humor adds mirth and merriment as they lunge and lumber through their travels and travails.
A special nod goes to Rob Merritt, who not only plays Falstaff’s cowardly hoodlum Gadshill, who flees at the first sign of peril, but in the second half, turns fierce as rebel Scotsman Douglas, wielding a lethal war hammer and a ruthless heart.
Bales uses his imposing presence to intimidate friend and foe, but it’s his command of the language that mesmerizes the audience in Falstaff’s honor speech that shimmers under the stars. But mostly, he’s hilarious as he tries to wiggle his way out of dire straits with Hal by spinning preposterous tales of derring-do that grow exponentially between breaths.
Aaron Weiner brings increasing shades of evil as Hotspur, a member of the Percy family that helped bring Henry IV to the throne, but now seeks to slay him in battle.
Equally impressive are S. Benjamin Farrar’s scenic and lighting design, which not only create a rustic space for the action, but pump up the drama after the sun sets on the outdoor stage. Emma Tremmel’s costumes anchor the action with a sense of place.
Colten Langfit’s sound design pummels the actors and audience during the epic war. And whether the fighting is hand-to-hand or through guns, K. Michael Moore’s fight choreography is the best and most startlingly realistic I’ve seen onstage. That’s no easy feat in an intimate space where players can literally fall at viewers’ feet.
The piece de resistance is the price of admission. It’s free. This is the second year Riverside has banished tickets to present free Shakespeare in the park. Long may this tradition reign.
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And if you want a clever tutorial beforehand, head to the side stage by the adjacent shelterhouse to see Noel VanDenBosch, Elijah Jones and Branden Shaw perform the Green Show at 6:30 p.m. It’s a 10-minutes version directed by Christopher Okiishi, in a most amusing vein.
Pack a picnic or purchase from a purveyor on the property, then avail yourself of the lawn games to make the evening complete.
WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1”
WHERE: Riverside Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (6/20) to Sunday (6/23)
ADMISSION: Free, no tickets required; donations accepted
EXTRAS: Green Show ensemble performs at 6:30 p.m. by the shelter house; food truck on-site, beverages available or bring your own picnic