Great River Shakespeare Festival provides courtly intrigue

A bloody good show: Christopher Sheard, Andrew Carlson

A bloody good show: Christopher Sheard, Andrew Carlson

In his history plays, William Shakespeare traced generations of British monarchs, courtly intrigue, and game-changing battles. They make for an uneven string of work, with a few bona fide classics amid several lesser works. (Note that "lesser" with Shakespeare often means a play most playwrights would kill to have written.)

Winona's Great River Shakespeare Festival tackles one of these lesser pieces in King Henry IV, Part One with an invigorating production that works around some of the show's limitations (as the name indicates, we don't get the whole story here) and accents its strengths, such as the relationship between young Prince Hal and his friend Falstaff.

While this is only the first part of the story—in many ways the first third, as the story of Hal continues as he takes the throne and fights the French in Part Two and King Henry V—the play has a clear beginning and end.

The story follows two main streams. On one side, there is callow youth 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 and has become a rebel.

So while Hal is planning to jape his friends by stealing the gold that they, in turn, have just stolen from a group of the king's tax collectors, Hotspur is verbally dueling with the king, letting his anger guide his actions and making an alliance of rebels who plan to overthrow the monarch. In a different play—one not based on the history of England, for example—it's easy to see Hotspur as the hero of the story.

Still, Hal does grow through the show, especially when he is called back to court to deal with the rebels. Here his role as the Prince of Wales finally comes to the fore, as his natural talents and years of training are put to better use than the endless, wasted nights at the Boar's Head. Falstaff comes along for the ride, still the prince's confidant and often off on adventures of his own.

Hal and Hotspur serve as the dynamic poles of the piece, and 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. Sheard's humor comes off with youthful charm, while Carlson's cuts harder and deeper, befitting the more serious situation Hotspur has found himself in. All of that comes out in the duo's climactic 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 it's worth. Falstaff is at turns charming and infuriating, courtly and a coward, which Daly shows in his complex and complete performance.

Director Paul Barnes (also the artistic head of the festival) moves the piece along at a strong pace, creating a terrific, crystal-clear production that shows how far the festival has come in the last eight years. If you don't want tragedy (or perhaps want to make a longer trip of it; Winona is a good two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Twin Cities), the festival also has productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Fantasticks on tap for the season.