In Shakespeare’s realm, all the world’s a stage. But beginning this week, his words will reverberate on a smaller globe.
Building on the success of last summer’s Free Shakespeare in the Park offering, Riverside Theatre is returning with another free production on the Festival Stage. It’s a venue is modeled after the Bard’s Globe Theater in London, but sitting among the verdant sweep of Iowa City’s Lower City Park.
Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1,” opens Friday (6/14) and continues through June 23.
King Henry has deposed the weaker King Richard II, and in so doing, becomes the first person to ascend the throne without being born into an unbroken line of succession that goes back to William the Conqueror, said director Adam Knight.
“It begs the question, ‘What makes a king the king?’ If it’s not determined by God, who’s to say that anyone can be king? And so that kicks off the War of the Roses,” Knight said.
“So basically we’re at the top of the story where Henry is struggling to hold his kingdom together. Wales is revolting, Scotland’s revolting and these lords of the North who helped Henry get the throne are starting to revolt. Meanwhile, Henry’s ne’er do well child, Prince Hal, his heir, is nowhere to be found.”
Knight has changed “Prince” to “Princess,” casting Katy Hahn as Hal, a character who “can be found in the pubs hanging out with some fallen knight named Sir John Falstaff,” Knight said, adding that Hal eventually participates in a robbery, but in the back of her mind, knows she will one day rule.
“So Henry’s got trouble in his kingdom and he’s got family trouble.”
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Casting a woman in the role of Hal came in an “aha” moment for Knight, who has been enamored of the play since his youth, when he “cut his teeth” doing Shakespeare in the park in Greenville, S.C.
With the feminine language and references in this show’s script, the time seemed right to make the shift.
“I was interested in a world in which Hal is a change agent, and having Hal not only played by a women but represented as one is important to me,” he said.
“Especially in this day when we’re trying to think about who the next generations of leaders are going to be, it just started to seem very exciting to me to have Hal be someone who in that time, was an unexpected king or an unexpected leader,” he said.
“Also, as a director who very much saw myself in Hal, it allowed me to step away a little bit and to look at it through someone else’s vantage point, not just my own.”
“It was this wonderful, vibrant era where the old forms were falling away. The women’s suffrage movement really reached its apex right after that. And all of a sudden you’re having these women be very independent. Things like gender fluidity and sexual fluidity are all of a sudden being talked about and being lived in a more open way, and I think Hal represents something of that, too,” Knight said.
This was the first show that he chose when he became Riverside Theatre’s artistic director nearly a year ago. The outdoor venue was one of the main things that lured him from New York City to Iowa City.
“It has that wonderful feel that just can’t be recreated in an indoor space,” he said.
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One of the first nights rehearsing on the stage brought the next “aha” moment for Knight through another knight — actor Elliott Bales, 58, of Arlington, Va., who plays fallen knight Falstaff.
“You don’t become a knight through hereditary means. You have to earn that title,” Bales said, so perhaps a crisis of faith caused him to turn away from his calling to God and king.
“We find that Falstaff talks a lot about repenting and changing. (The script) has a lot of references to God and the church, and so clearly, something happened that caused him to become less — to fall from grace and to move into this life of thievery of dissipation, and it’s been fun to explore what that means.”
“(Bales) was acting in the space and he looked up to the heavens, and all of a sudden he was looking at the sky instead of a light grid. He said it informs his delivery of the lines. He realized that when they looked up at the sky and talking about God, they’re looking up into the heavens,” Knight said. “It’s a very different experience than being in a black box or in a smaller space. That’s one of the things that drew me here. I love it.”
That sky-gazing moment rocked Bales, a retired Army colonel who is now professional actor in the burgeoning Washington, D.C., theater scene. It’s a twist on life imitating art as the former military man and minister’s son steps into the rabble-rousing role of the former military man.
Giving Falstaff’s famous “honor speech” for the first time on the outdoor stage was transformative.
“Saying that speech about being a soldier and being called by someone else to honor, instead of finding the honor that is in serving and choosing to serve,” was profound for him, he said. “There’s a moment where Hal says, ‘You owe God a death,’ and Falstaff responds in typical Falstaff fashion, but then he has a line in the transition to what is an honor, that is, ‘Why should I call on him who calls not on me?’ And I’d never heard (it) that way until I’m looking up at the sky, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh — that’s it.’
“It’s those sorts of moments that are just precious and wonderful and fill you with a sense of wonder and awe at what theater is,” Bales said.
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The play marks a homecoming for the 1979 graduate of Cedar Rapids Washington High School, who still has family in Cedar Rapids.
It’s his first time back on an Eastern Iowa stage in 39 years, through a twist of fate. He just happened to be visiting his mother when he discovered Riverside Theatre’s open casting call for the season. He was called back in March, and won the role.
“It’s a challenge as much as it is a joy,” Bales said. “Here is this rascal, this person who does all of these things that everyone is going to wag their head at and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that guy.’ But at the end of the play, you still have to love him and think he’s not only hilarious but he’s just a big, lovable teddy bear, and ‘Isn’t he funny’ and ‘Well, he’s got some points.’ And so that’s been fun to discover in the text.”
In his time back in Iowa, he’s also enjoyed reconnecting with friends from high school and from his first paid theater gig, when he did four shows for the Cedar Rapids Community Theatre (now Theatre Cedar Rapids) in the summer of 1979.
He’s especially enjoyed discovering the depth of talent at play in the Corridor.
“To come to the center of the country ... and find these amazing artists that are committed and trained and talented, and get to work with them,” he said of the Riverside troupe.
“Everybody brings these great ideas that are illuminating — with a different background and a different set of life experiences, it does help illuminate the story even more. And to me it’s been almost giggly to sit at the table and hear people say things and say, ‘Aha.’ I would not have done that sitting in a room in New York.”
Get Thee Out!
WHAT: Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1”
WHERE: Riverside Festival Stage, Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd., Iowa City
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (6/14) to Sunday (6/16) and June 20 to 23
ADMISSION: Free, no tickets required; donations accepted
EXTRAS: Green Show ensemble performs at 6:30 p.m.; food trucks on-site, beverages available or bring your own picnic to the park
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