There's really no doubt about it: For the next couple weeks Jim Butz is the hardest working actor in St. Louis.
As young Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Butz strides aside equally billed players, where his transformation from irresponsible drunkard to king is but one of several competing narratives. In the title role in Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' Henry V, however, the transformation is complete: Butz takes center stage, and — as Henry would France — owns it.
It's one of the great Shakespearean roles, and St. Louis audiences are lucky to witness the entire narrative unfold on alternating nights. (Diehards take note: The plays will be performed sequentially on June 7 and 14.)
They're also lucky to have Butz at the helm.
From this play's magnificent opening lines, where the newly installed Henry denounces his youthful indiscretions while listening to the case for war with France, Butz is a far cry from the dissolute young man of Henry IV, who misspent his youth drinking with Falstaff and pranking his lowborn chums in Eastcheap. Falstaff now lies dying. His father and Hotspur are dead. Hal now bears the weight of the crown, and Butz, who brings a regal humanity to the role, is anguished over the coming bloodshed.
But the French, and particularly the jejune Dauphin, played with foppish mania by a very talented Charles Pasternak, underestimate the young king, inciting his ire when they insult him with a gift of tennis balls. "When we have march'd our rackets to these balls, we will, in France, by God's grace, play a set," the young king fumes, "shall strike his father's crown into the hazard."
Butz's performance here is gloriously modulated. As a king meting out justice to three traitors while en route to France, he is both heartbroken at the treachery and furious at the threat to the crown. He's a ruthless warrior as he lays siege to Harfleur, threatening to pit their "naked infants" upon pikes, later dispatching one of the most inspirational rallying cries of the English language. "Once more unto the breach," he urges his troops during the bloody siege, a battle that director Bruce Longworth and lighting designer John Wylie render with marvelous abstraction.
Butz's performance is aided in no small part by Anderson Matthews, whose sonorous voice in the role of the chorus brings both the gravity of the French campaign and an august historical verisimilitude to this stagey show. Also very good is Jerry Vogel in the role of Pistol, whose mate, Bardolph (Alex Miller), is dramatically hanged onstage for thievery. Tony DeBruno (magnificent as Falstaff in Henry IV) again delivers a fine performance as Fluellen, an officer in Henry's army.
But the focus never strays far from Butz, who, as Henry — weary, his troops ailing, hounded by the French and hoping to return to England for the winter — rallies his men for one last battle, delivering the St. Crispen's Day speech with a blend of compassion and fervor as he appeals to his beleaguered soldiers before the final battle of Agincourt. "He which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart.... We would not die in that man's company that fears his fellowship to die with us," he roars. "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
Having routed the French and hoping to join the crowns through marriage, Butz's Henry charms as a suitor, courting the lovely French Princess Katherine (Dakota Mackey-McGee) in a language not his own.
Henry, like Butz, is successful in all his campaigns. But Henry's victories would be relatively short-lived: His son, Henry VI, would soon lose the French crown. Butz, by contrast, reigns only through June 15. Catch him while you can.
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