"HENRY IV PART TWO," Utah Shakespeare Festival, through Sept. 5, Adams Shakespearean Theatre, 299 W. Center St., Cedar City (800-752-9849 or bard.org)
CEDAR CITY, Utah — As the playwright of "Henry IV Part Two," William Shakespeare deserves most of the blame for the show’s lack of action. So to say the Utah Shakespeare Festival's production, under the direction of Brian Vaughn, is moderately successful in keeping its audience engaged is actually to say the production, on the whole, is a success. Still, it's not without its rough moments.
The play opens with Rumour (Larry Bull, who also plays the title role) standing on a balcony as he describes in a booming voice his knack for "stuffing the ears of men with false reports." Smoke seeps onto the stage as a dramatic sword fight plays out. It's an exciting beginning, but the energy quickly slackens.
Confusion instead reigns as the story takes shape — both for the characters, who are trying to discern how the rebellion led by the Earl of Northumberland (Peter Sham, giving a solid delivery) is faring, and for members of the audience who are largely unfamiliar with the events of "Part One" and/or who struggle to sort out who's who. The casting situation compounds the problem as several actors are double, triple and even quadruple cast; costume changes don't entirely help in separating familiar faces into distinct characters.
As King Henry IV, Bull seems more dazed than anxious through most of his performance, but he comes more to life as his character nears death.
Things brighten up as the story's focus switches from politics to Sir John Falstaff (John Ahlin), a rotund, bearded, aging knight who calls Prince Henry friend and avoids any activity that resembles work. Ahlin's performance feels natural and is immensely enjoyable, and Sceri Sioux Ivers as Falstaff's Page is likewise likable. Though called to battle, Falstaff shrugs at his responsibility and drags his feet, visiting a tavern — where a bit of a brawl breaks out — and casually seeking recruits for the king's army.
These scenes inject some needed fun and heart into the show. In the recruitment scene, Falstaff turns to Justice Shallow (David Pichette, who can do no wrong) to help find some needed soldiers, and the audience meets Mouldy (Andrew Voss), Wart (Josh Durfey), Shadow (Eric Weiman), Feeble (Zack Powell) and Bullcalf (Michael C. Thatcher). Though the scene is relatively short and the parts are small, the actors inhabit their roles with great humor, particularly Weiman as Shadow, an eerie fellow who stands too close and too quiet, head tilted, eyes wide and mouth gaping.
Other attempts at creating interest don’t work so well, such as when tavern wench Doll Tearsheet (played with vivacity by Saren Nofs-Snyder) “vomits” while facing the audience and, in the opening performance, overshoots. But overall, these moments help pull the audience through much of the play, and it turns out to be a journey worth the trip.
Sam Ashdown returns from last season's "Part One" to reprise his role as Prince Henry, and in this case easily demonstrates why he was contracted for three seasons. In addition to navigating the personal journey of his own character with a powerful performance, he helps transform the characters around him, earning audience empathy for Bull's Henry IV and provoking increased love and sympathy for Ahlin's Falstaff.
Vicki M. Smith's scenic design works well for the Middle Ages setting with minimal ornamentation or warmth outside of the king's chambers and the tavern. David Kay Mickelsen's costumes are marvelously detailed, textured and, when appropriate, dirty and worn, and range from ragged to resplendent in accordance with the characters' stations.
Audiences set on seeing all of Shakespeare's history plays will not want to miss this one as it's rarely performed, but average theatergoers may prefer one of the festival's other productions. For those who decide to see "Henry IV Part Two," USF's website at bard.org offers some valuable study guides.
Content advisory: Mild language and innuendo, alcohol consumption and some violence.