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‘Henry IV, Part 1’ at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival: Good storytelling, but a dud of a duel

The 'Extreme Shakespeare' format lets the actors direct themselves. In this case, the outcome wasn't thrilling.

John Ahlin as Falstaff and Mairin Lee as Prince Hal in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of Henry IV, Part 1.
John Ahlin as Falstaff and Mairin Lee as Prince Hal in the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of Henry IV, Part 1.Read moreLee A. Butz

Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 begins with the promise of peace in the wake of prolonged conflict. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t last. But the audience at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival might not recognize that, due to a prevailing air of tranquility.

This is the latest entry in PSF’s “Extreme Shakespeare” series, which offers a look at how plays were staged in the Bard’s time. It plays on the intimate Schubert Stage through Aug. 4.

The actors arrive with their lines learned, then work collaboratively — without a director — to devise an original staging in a matter of days. But if the “extreme” moniker promises something raucous, ragtag, and amusing, it’s a check that the finished product fails to cash in this production. I propose a renaming: “Tame Shakespeare.”

And that’s a problem, because there should be nothing tame about this rollicking historical drama, either physically or emotionally. Perhaps more than in any other work from this category, Shakespeare melds swashbuckling swordplay with an undercurrent of expressivity — and a fair amount of comic panache. The PSF production succeeds in lucid storytelling, and a few polished performances emerge. But the temperature rarely rises to a boil.

When it finally comes time for the contentious battle between Prince Hal (Mairin Lee) and Hotspur (Kathryn Tkel), the resulting duel resembles a rudimentary stage combat class. Surely the lack of a fight director hindered their abilities to turn this essential scene into the moment of pulse-pounding entertainment it should be.

This and other moments suggest that director-less stagings like this one work best as an academic exercise.

A director, for example, could have provoked more depth from Lee. Instead, she remains wan throughout, convincing neither as the wastrel of the early scenes or the miraculously transformed warrior who secures her dad’s crown. For a play that delves into the psychological depths of father-son relationships, she barely skims the surface of her connection to King Henry (John Keabler, who sounded hoarse and underpowered at the performance I attended) or to Hal’s parental surrogate, Sir John Falstaff (John Ahlin).

The production follows prevailing cross-gender trends by casting two women in the central male roles, yet it fails to say anything interesting with this reassignment. Tkel lands on a more successful characterization than Lee, tapping into the bravado that gives Hotspur (really Henry Percy) his nickname, but she has a distracting habit of striking a pose before delivering a line.

Ahlin turns in a blustery, ribald Falstaff – it’s the kind of performance where many start laughing at the mere sight of him. Yet it’s largely devoid of organic discovery, and I wasn’t surprised to learn he’s played the role often, including in a previous PSF production of Henry IV, Part 1 from 2005.

A pre-show announcement teased Henry IV, Part 2 as a potential entry in PSF’s 2020 season. I would welcome it. But I hope they give the work its due – with a director, a production team, and adequate rehearsal to get at its complicated heart.


Henry IV, Part 1

Through Aug. 4 at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, DeSales University, 2755 Station Ave,, Center Valley.

Tickets: $25-55.

Information: 610-202-9455,