There aren't many of Shakespeare's plays that are more lad-driven than Henry IV, Part 1. While the title is about the king, the play is as much about his Henry's son, Hal, who finds himself torn between the wild life he has led with his thieving friend, Falstaff, and his duty to the realm as civil strife threatens to tear it apart.
So it takes a lot of gumption by Ten Thousand Things' Michelle Hensley to cast the show entirely with women. It's a dare that largely works, as the various actors fully embrace the driving forces and contradictions of Henry, Hal, Falstaff, and the other men who inhabit their world. Reducing their performances to simple, "men act like this/women act like that" assumptions does a disservice to the deep interpretations on display here.
As the title indicates, this is just part of the story. In fact, it opens with allusions to Richard III, and Hal's story won't wrap up until Henry V. Set around the beginning of the 15th century, Henry IV, Part 1 finds the king in a difficult position. His reign is marked by constant rebellions. A large one is brewing under his feet, led by the once-loyal Northumberland and a cadre of powerful men from Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.
Where is the young prince while this is happening? Whiling away his days with Falstaff's merry gang, planning thievery, drinking, and avoiding his duty as best he can. That all changes when the king calls on Hal's duty, and it is off to the battlefront with him, dragging the wary Falstaff along.
The play is loaded with great characters, and the actors take up the mantle in turn. Sha Cage doubles down on her recent string of terrific performances as Hal, alternating between a fun-loving lad and a duty-bound prince. There is a lot of confusion about his future path, and Cage plays that cleanly, giving us a lot of reasons to pay attention while the complex political plot unfolds (really; they employ an onstage map of the British Isles to keep us up to date).
In many ways, Karen Wiese-Thompson is a perfect Falstaff. Her comic timing perfectly fits the fun-loving character, but her ability to dig deeper sharpens his more penetrating observations about honor and death on the battlefield.
One character not mentioned yet is Hotspur. He is Northumberland's son, and a fiery warrior and leader. In many ways, he would make a better Prince of Wales than Hal, and he knows it. Whenever she's onstage, Anne Sundberg makes Hotspur the star of the show, and helps to embed a tragedy in the midst of Hal's coming-of-age story.
Along with Hensley's deft direction, credit should also be given to Anne Enneking's tough fight choreography, which skips swords and blades and instead opts for a fierce, hand-to-hand approach. This makes each death on the battlefield that much more personal, and just further underlines the tough decision that Hal faces: Go with glory and duty as the King's son; or with fun, mirth, and safety as Falstaff's friend.
IF YOU GO:
Henry IV, Part 1
Through November 1
1011 Washington Ave. S., Minneapolis
For tickets and more information, call 800-838-3006 or visit online.