Ashland 2017: Henry IV, Part I

When word came on Saturday morning that an understudy would be playing Sir John Falstaff in that afternoon’s performance of Henry IV Part I, our tour-group’s faculty guide was less than cheerful.  G. Valmont Thomas is a popular OSF veteran, and one of the company’s most reliably compelling performers.  Then, several hours later, the lights went down at the Festival’s intimate Thomas Theater…

…and viewers were treated not just to an exceptional Falstaff from understudy Tyrone Wilson, but to a uniformly excellent and unusually accessible presentation that scores high marks in every category of stagecraft from acting to set design to technical effects.

It’s not unusual for me to assert that the cast of a given OSF show is uniformly good, though I often follow that comment with some specific note of praise for or dissatisfaction with a particular performance.  This case is different: the ensemble here is not just uniformly good, but uniformly astonishing in the best possible way.  Shakespeare’s history plays are frequently (and not wrongly) characterized as sprawling and difficult to follow; here, the performances are clear, crisp, and beautifully integrated with one another, so that what shines are not individuals but pairings and trios — Wilson’s Falstaff with Daniel Jose Molina’s Prince Hal, Lauren Modica’s Glendower with Alejandra Escalante’s Hotspur, and so on.  (Yes, you read that correctly: both Hotspur and Glendower are played here by women; indeed, most of Hotspur’s rebel aides and allies are women here, and they’re just as convincing a band as the predominantly male forces supporting King Henry.)

Modern dress costuming and scenic design — spare and industrial, but cleverly lighted and fitted with a handful of ingenious special-effects tools — also contribute to the production’s crisp and easily followed pacing.  And while purists and those with sensitive hearing may complain about the final act’s extended artillery battle, the fact is that the staging is no louder than it needs to be and relatively restrained in its execution.

The result is a show that combines the brisk action of a modern movie thriller with the nuanced characterization of a thoughtful military drama…and makes the tonal blending work.  It may be the single most purely watchable history play I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been coming to Ashland, and that covers a lot of territory.