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Great River Shakespeare brings clarity to 'King Henry IV, Part One'

Michael Fitzpatrick as King Henry IV

Michael Fitzpatrick as King Henry IV

​The Great River Shakespeare Festival has done wonders in bringing a professional, summer theater experience for residents and visitors of Winona over the past eight years. I've only managed to make it down twice in that time, but I'm happy to report that the quality of performances has increased as well.

King Henry IV, Part One is not the easiest of Shakespeare's work to produce. While there's a complete story presented, the title alone lets you know that you have only seen the first part (in many ways three, as the main story about Prince Hal continues to unfold in Part Two and when he becomes the monarch in Henry V) and the young prince's journey from callow youth to ruler of all Britain has just begun.

The play follows two main streams. On one side, there is Hal and the denizens of a disreputable London tavern, the Boar's Head, where he has befriended the famously corpulent John Falstaff. The other traces Henry "Hotspur" Percy, who had once been an ally to the titular king, but is now aggrieved by the monarch as he has become a rebel.

The two serve as the dynamic poles of the piece. The two young actors, Christopher Sheard as Hal and Andrew Carlson as Hotspur, perform with oodles of charisma and energy. The differences between the characters are made clear as Sheard's humor comes off with more youthful charm; while Carlson's cuts harder and deeper, befitting the more serious situation Hotspur has found himself in--and that comes out in the duo's climatic fight on the battlefield.

There are other strong performances here as well, including Jonathan Gillard Daly's turn as the massive Falstaff. Though his costuming as a fat man isn't all that convincing, Daly plays the role for all its worth, bringing out the positive and negative parts of the character in full light. Falstaff is at turns charming and infuriating; courtly and a coward, and Daly shows us all of that in his complex and complete performance. (And speaking of aspects that weren't all that convincing: the actors heave and grunt mightily in the fight scenes, which would have been more convincing if they weren't using rather cute short swords.)

Director Paul Barnes (also the artistic head of the festival) moves the piece along at a strong pace, presenting the action with lots of clarity (a setting-the-scene opening from the company helps as well) that still manages to dig into the story and the characters for some added depth, especially in the relationships between Hal and Falstaff and Hotspur and his wife, well played by Kate Fonville.

King Henry IV, Part One is one of three shows in this year's festival. It will be presented in rep with A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Fantasticks. The festival runs through July 31.