Honor and duty are deeply examined in Riverside’s amazingly accessible romp of a ‘Henry IV Part 1’

Riverside Theatre Presents: ‘Henry IV Part 1’

Lower City Park Festival Stage* — through June 23

*Please note: Riverside has announced that due to the forecasted weather, Saturday, June 15’s performance will be at Parkview Church (15 Foster Road, Iowa City): doors at 6:30 p.m., performance at 7:30 p.m., no Green Show. Check Riverside’s Facebook page for announcements on future performances.

Katy Hahn as Hal in ‘Henry IV Part 1.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

“Nor more shall trenching war channel her fields,
Nor bruise her flowerets with the armed hoofs
Of hostile paces”

Seven lines in, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV (Tim Budd) is evoking some very familiar imagery. With an intro like that, it’s no wonder Adam Knight chose to set Riverside’s current production of Henry IV Part 1 during World War I, a conflict elegized in 1915 by Canadian John McCrae with the poem beginning, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow.”

It’s easy to imagine the Prince Hal that Shakespeare pens for us, the (spoiler alert) future Henry V, waxing poetic about his own battlefield experiences in a much more McCraean way than his father. “We are the Dead,” McCrae writes — and ever the consummate man of the people, Hal undoubtedly would feel the same. As Knight said recently, Hal represents a breaking of a cycle, a desire for generational change. He recognizes some realities of war and leadership and the personal cost of both that many citizens of the world were just re-learning during World War I, itself a war that changed everything.

Eventually, Hal gets his own named play in Shakespeare’s Henriad and (spoiler alert) becomes kind of an asshole in the process of (spoiler alert) uniting England and France. But here, as a young, idealistic kid just resigning himself to the realities of royal responsibility, he represents promise. He represents a new way forward.

It’s into this wild fray of influences that Knight throws Katy Hahn as Princess Hal. The decision to play Henry of Monmouth as the Princess of Wales, rather than have a woman play a man, is fraught with philosophy, and works better at some times than at others. When Hal is getting dressed down by Henry IV for her gallivanting and chicanery, the words gain the weight of familiarity for being addressed to a woman, whose behaviors are often (especially by male parents) judged far more harshly, royal or not.

Katy Hahn (L) as Hal, Tim Budd as Henry in ‘Henry IV Part 1.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

But there are moments that feel flat and forced, jokes that are leaned into a little too hard and become uncomfortable, such as when the errant knight Falstaff (Elliott Bales) refers to Hal as a “sheath.” Making the play about womanhood by highlighting certain coincidentally appropriate bits of text takes something from Hal’s growth process. The costuming, too, added an element of muddiness, as Hal seemed to be dressed in masculine attire through the first part of the play, rather than reading explicitly as female.

And while I found it unnecessary, the decision to modify the text to “princess” and “queen” and other feminine markers would have been fine, had it been consistent. As it was, some instances of maintaining masculine language seemed intentional, but many were unclear as to whether, perhaps, changes were made in prose but not verse, or actors too familiar with the original text stumbled, or some lines were just missed by whomever did the modifications.

Throughout, though, Hahn carried a thread of frustrated nobility that was a delight to watch. Her Hal — as the character should — stands apart from the various ways she is treated by others. In the end, gender is just one more label for Hal to throw off as she strives to discover and activate the person she needs to become.

(L-R) Kevin Michael Moore as Mortimer, Matthew James as Worcester, Aaron Weiner as Hotspur in ‘Henry IV Part 1.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

There were moments of sheer unplanned magic in the opening night performance of Henry IV Part 1. For outdoor theater, it’s often uncertain whether the weather is going to be an ally or an enemy — but on Friday, the wind, especially, chimed in at opportune moments to ratchet up the tension or emphasize a point.

But there were also moments of genuine theater magic as well — scenes that stood out even in an overall strong production. The first was when we get a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the machinations of Worcester (Matthew James), Northumberland (Robyn Calhoun) and the fiery Hotspur (Aaron Weiner) as they plot against the king. The scheming is truly delicious, and the interplay between the three actors a joy to watch.

James is as serious as Weiner is rash, and Calhoun gets in an impressive number of well-placed eye rolls as they clash. They play well together, and as futile as it feels to root for an antagonist, especially when the history has, in fact (spoiler alert?) already happened, these three will make you want to. I’m a sucker for an underdog, though (and for the rights of sovereign nations to govern themselves, which makes me cringe a bit watching anything about the history of England).

Another transcendent moment is Falstaff’s speech about honor. Again, the World War I setting is particularly poignant here. Bales excels throughout the show at meeting the full range of Falstaff’s role — from clown to Hal’s future king; to straight man for the hilarious bumbling of Peto (Branden Shaw), Gadshill (Rob Merritt) and especially Bardolf (clown extraordinaire Elijah Jones); to philosopher, in moments such as this. It’s in this sincerity that you see the depth of his work on the part. Bales’ Falstaff is as inspiring as he is funny — and frustrating and heartbreaking all in one.

Elliott Bales (L) as Sir John Falstaff, Elijah Jones as Bardolf in ‘Henry IV Part 1.’ — S. Benjamin Farrar/Riverside Theatre

The climax of the show is the fight between Hotspur and Hal, and it is glorious. When Weiner and Hahn bring together their larger-than-life personalities, it’s electric. The dichotomy between the two characters is so well drawn through a perfect triumvirate of text, acting and direction that you can feel the thickness in the air between them. Their fight is elegantly choreographed by Kevin Michael Moore (who also makes for a marvelous Mortimer) as a close and intimate knife fight. Moore’s fights overall in the play are well done, but this one is a capstone, both of design and execution.

There are a lot of good reasons to see Riverside’s Henry IV Part 1. It has room for growth (Calhoun’s Mistress Quickly was far too arch for my taste, some Welsh accents drifted Scots-ward, the costuming often had a hodge-podge “doing the best with what we’ve got” feel), but for many of these actors, Shakespeare is like a native tongue. There were fantastic performances from Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers, Noel VanDenBosch and others that I don’t even have time to dive into here — I’ll just exhort you to see them for yourself. And you definitely don’t want to miss the 6:30 p.m. Green Show (written and directed by Chris Okiishi).

But the most amazing thing about Riverside’s Henry IV Part 1 is the role it plays in our community. Free Shakespeare in the park is something every theatergoer should have access to, and we are very lucky that we have it here. One thing that struck me was how many young children were in the audience — something that almost definitely wouldn’t be true of a paid production.

Those kids had a chance to fall in love with art and take it home with them — and in addition to seeing adult professionals practicing their craft, those kids had the chance to feel seen, as well, through the inclusion of Jack Hahn as Lord John of Lancaster. Hal’s brother is more rightly a young teen, but Jack (Katy’s son) was perfect for the role, and had the added benefit of showing children who might otherwise not see much theater at all that there is a place for them onstage, too.

Henry IV Part 1 runs through June 23. Grab the whole family and experience it.

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