Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Guthrie's Henriad in Repertory:Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V
Guthrie Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Tyler Michaels King in Richard II
Photo by Dan Norman
The Guthrie's Henriad encompasses three plays by William Shakespeare performed in repertory over the course of two months: Richard II, Henry IV (combining Part 1 and Part 2), and Henry V–the epic and mostly true stories of three Plantagenet kings of England who ruled in succession. Collectively, they cover twenty-four years of British history, 1398 to 1422. Mounting the three, with the same cast of twenty-two ensemble actors playing, among them, ninety different roles, is a massive undertaking, a project of spectacular ambition from director Joseph Haj and his creative team. The result is near perfect in execution. No theatre company in the Twin Cities other than the Guthrie could have even endeavored such a project, let alone seen it to fruition as an artistic triumph.

For all the artistry, talent, and sweat invested in the project, it is fair to ask the question, "What are these plays about?" It is easy enough to surmise that they tell a battle-scarred slice of English history from a time long past, but a time that laid foundations for the England that later settled our American eastern seaboard, overtaking the indigenous nations already there and establishing a society that, to a large degree, became the first building blocks of the United States. We have that connection, after all. But beyond that history–which we can pick up in any number of online encyclopedias–do these plays reveal anything about the human spirit?

William Sturdivant in Henry IV
Photo by Dan Normal
I came across the answer on a t-shirt on sale in the Guthrie's gift shop. The shirt depicts the logo used in all branding for these plays, an adorned crown rimmed by a foreboding looking sawtooth pattern with an iron chain and lock attached to it. Just below this image is the title Richard II, and underneath in smaller print: "A king becomes a man." Below that is the title Henry IV with "A man becomes a king" below. Near the bottom of the shirt is the title Henry V with the smaller print below reading "A king becomes a hero." Those three lines pretty well sum up the psychic journey that occurs, spread over three different monarchs in three different plays.

Richard II became king when he was a mere ten years old in 1377. When the play starts he is thirty-one, but still a boy in temperament. He pampers himself–as evidenced by his luxurious blond tresses and resplendent gold apparel (Trevor Bowen designed the well-conceived and exquisitely rendered costumes). Moreover, he adheres to the then-prevalent belief that kings rule by divine right, therefore whatever they do is a fulfillment of God's will. Thus, he frequently made rash and wrong-headed decisions, resulting in him being unpopular in many circles.

As Richard II begins, he arbitrarily intervenes in a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray by banishing Thomas for life and Henry for six years. Further, when Henry's father, Duke of Lancaster, dies soon after, Richard seizes Lancaster's estate to pay for his war against Ireland. Henry takes advantage of Richard's preoccupations to plot a return to England. Henry's goal is simply to be reinstated in his homeland and receive his estate, but the success of his campaign throws Richard into a tailspin of doubt, questioning for the first time his rightfulness to sit as reigning monarch. His downfall comes not so much from Henry's military ambition or prowess, but from the unraveling of his own mind as he considers himself not as a God-ordained king, but a fallible man. Thus, as sayeth the t-shirt, "A King becomes a man."

Richard cedes his crown to Henry, who becomes Henry IV. However, the crown does not rest easily on Henry's head, especially after Richard is killed, fulfilling a wish spoken–but not intended to be acted upon–by Henry. Now that Henry finds himself king, he would like nothing better than to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to restore his soul, tarnished by Richard's murder. However, military challenges from Scotland and Wales, and loyalists to Richard keep him at home. Henry Bolingbroke must steel himself to be a King Henry IV and carry out his holy duty to maintain dominion over England.

Daniel Jose Molina and
Dustin Bronson in Henry V

Photo by Dan Norman
The clarity and fortitude with which Henry acts stands in marked contrast to his eldest son, also Henry but called Hal, the diminutive name better suiting his temperament. Prince Hal has adopted a wastrel's life, consorting with drunkards and petty thieves, most notable among them Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff and his cronies in the invented village of Cheapside provide Henry IV with a fictional comic subplot. However, in the course of events, Hal recognizes that the time in his life for youthful abandon has passed, and that he must stand with his father to defend the crown–and his inheritance. Thus, both Henry IV and the future Henry V uphold the t-shirt's forecast that "A man becomes a King."

Henry V begins with the Archbishop of Canterbury urging King Henry V to reclaim portions of France that had once been ruled by England. For over three centuries these lands had changed hands between the French and English. The Archbishop's true aim in promoting war against France is for the king to enrich his coffers with French wealth, rather than from the church. In any case, Henry sees this as a righteous cause, especially after an insulting gift is presented to him by French King Charles VI (an event which, apparently, is fact-based). In battle, Henry proves to be an adroit military leader, securing major victories against the odds. He is also–at least as Shakespeare depicts him–a caring monarch, evidenced by disguising himself in order to hear from the foot soldiers how they feel about their king, and he adjusts his behavior accordingly. In these ways, Henry V bears out the t-shirt's declaration that "A king becomes a hero."

We are thus privy to understanding the way in which the almost mythical conception of the role of a king versus the human reality of a man who is triggered by both aspirations and flaws, are braided together in creating the pageant of history. Pageant certainly describes the physical production, beautifully blocked and paced by Haj on scenic designer Jan Chambers' rotating central set piece, a commanding elevated throne backed by stained glass and royal banners on one side and a series of stairs and platforms on its other sides, allowing it to be positioned in dozens of stunning arrangements. Heather Gilbert's intricately varied lighting design, Mikaal Sulaiman's adroit sound design, and subtle musical underscoring by Jack Herrick all converge on this masterful undertaking. Contemplative scenes hold us in the palms of their hands, leaning in to hear every word, while battle scenes unleash the fury of war with a nod to fight director U. Jonathan Toppo for the splendid swordplay.

As for the performances, all three plays are graced by an embarrassment of riches. The three kings stand out, as they must. Tyler Michaels King, so talented a musical theatre performer, allows himself to be a tragically self-absorbed Richard II, who then cracks before our eyes as his entire conception of the cosmos shatters when he learns that he is no more than–nor less than–a man. It is brave and brilliant work. As Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes King Henry IV, William Sturdivant masterfully enacts his journey over the first two of the three plays. Conveying an essential integrity, Sturdivant commands the stage as his Henry shifts from loyal subject of Richard II to a disgruntled outcast, to plotting avenger, to wielder of unsought power, to emboldened monarch, to the diminishment of his strength–but not his hold on the crown–unto his death.

Daniel José Molina, whose Prince Hal transforms into King Henry V, is a new discovery for Twin Cities audiences. Molina creates an entirely authentic portrait of Hal as disaffected youth, employing posture, speech patterns, a caddish grin, and an abundance of energy that makes him seem almost radioactive. Yet, his transformation into the king he was destined to become is totally credible. We see the very moment when his father's words seep in and stir him to accept his destiny. He acquires the stern visage of a leader of men, allowing for a pained grimace before meting out harsh words and, at a later time, vicious punishment, upon his former companions. His abundance of internal energy is now directed toward being sovereign of his nation. When Henry woos the woman who has captured his heart, Molina draws on Henry's boyish instincts and acquired manliness to become irresistible, both to Princess Katherine and to the audience.

There is not a weak link among the acting company, almost all of whom are cast in multiple roles. After the three kings, most memorable is Jimmy Kieffer as Falstaff, enhancing this classic buffoon with a waft of sadness. Also worthy of praise is John Catron's portrayal of Harry "Hotspur" Percy, who wages an indefatigable challenge against Henry IV. To lift up just some of the many notable turns, I cite Jasmine Bracey as both Duchess of York and the French emissary Montjoy, Dustin Bronson as Edward, Charity Jones as both John of Gaunt and Archbishop of Canterbury, Kurt Kwan as King Charles VI, David Andrew Macdonald as Duke of York, Bill McCallum as both Owen Glendower and Nym, Lanise Antoine Shelley as Hostess Quickly, David Whelan as Pistol, and Erin Mackey as Davy, a young lad traumatized by the battlefield who transitions, before our eyes, into the ravishing Princess Katherine.

The phrase "the Henriads" refers to two series, each comprising four of Shakespeare's history plays. Together, the eight plays cover almost a full century of English history. Each Henriad is a sequence of four plays, or a tetralogy, that picks up where the other leaves off. Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VII Part 3, and Richard III were written by Shakespeare first, and are therefore called the first Henriad. Though they cover historical ground that precedes these, Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V appeared later, and thus are called the second Henriad. To confuse things a tad more, the two Henry IV plays are, in modern times, often combined into a single play, as the Guthrie has done, turning what was a tetralogy into a trilogy. As for Shakespeare's other two history plays, King John and Henry VIII, they are each a stand-alone work.

In regard to condensing Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 into one play, Guthrie resident dramaturg Carla Steen has stated that in their production, about two-thirds of the content came from Part 1 and one third from Part 2. Having seen each performed separately, I see this combination of the two offering a more unified depiction of Henry V's transition from wastrel youth to stalwart monarch, while maintaining the essential narrative of both plays.

I admit, as much as I have confidence in the Guthrie's capacity to produce outstanding work, I was somewhat leery of having committed to seeing three of Shakespeare's history play in succession, three days running. I need not have worried. These productions are enlightening, clear-headed and energizing, while also providing a generous serving of that ineffable quality, "entertainment." Had there been a fourth play the next evening I'd have happily returned for more.

Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V run through May 25, 2024, in repertory at the Guthrie Theater, Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-377-2224 or visit

Playwright: William Shakespeare; Director: Joseph Haj; Scenic Design: Jan Chambers; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen Lighting Design: Heather Gilbert; Sound Design: Mikaal Sulaiman; Composer: Jack Herrick; Dramaturg: Carla Steen; Vocal Coach: Sarah Becker; Fight Director: U. Jonathan Toppo; Intimacy: Annie Enneking; Resident Casting: Jennifer Liestman; NYC Casting Consultant: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Associate Director: Lavina Jadhwani; Assistant Director: Kate Pitt; SDCF Directing Fellow: Kajsa Jones-Higgins; Stage Managers: Karl Alphonso and Tree O'Halloran; Assistant Stage Managers: Jason Clusman and Olivia Lousie Tree Plath

Cast: Kaleb Baker (ensemble), Leor Benjamin (ensemble), Stephanie Anne Bertumen (Sir John Bushy/Gardner's Servant/Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester/ Lady Mortimer), Jasmine Bracey (Duchess of York/Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester/ Montjoy/Alice), Dustin Bronson (Lord Marshal/Sir Stephen Scroop/Sir Pierce of Exton/Ned Poins/Edward, Lord Scroop of Masham; the Dauphin), John Catron (Harry Percy/Michael Williams), Zach Christensen (ensemble), Isa Grofsorean (ensemble), Charity Jones (John of Gaunt/ Gardner/Groom/Lord Chief Justice/Archbishop of Canterbury/Governor of Harfleur/Sir Thomas Erpingham), Jimmy Kieffer (Sir John Bagot/Sir John Falstaff/Duke of Exeter), Kurt Kwan (Lord Ross/ Peto/ Travers/Earl of Warwick/Bishop of Ely/King Charles VI), David Andrew Macdonald (Duke of York), Erin Mackey (Lord Willoughby/Doll Tearsheet/Lady Percy/Duke of Orleans/Macmorris), Melissa Maxwell (Duchess of Gloucester/Bishop of Carlisle/ Earl of Westmoreland), Bill McCallum (Owen Glendower/Bishop of Carlisle/Nym/Lord Morton/French Soldier), Tyler Michaels King (King Richard II/John, Prince of Lancaster/Sir Edmund Mortimer/John Duke of Bedford), Daniel José Molina (Sir Henry Green/Prince Henry/King Henry V), Em Rosenberg (Gardner's Servant/Exton's Servant/Traveler/King Henry's Page/Earl of Surrey/Richard, Earl of Cambridge/Messenger/John Bates), Sophina Saggau (York's Servant/Hotspur's Servant/Lord Chief Justice's Servant/Messenger/Duke of Burbon/Jamy), Eric Sharp (Lord Berkeley/ Exton's Servant/Thomas, Duke of Clarence/Sir Richard Vernon/Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland/ Alexander Court), Lanise Antoine Shelley (Queen/Sir Walter Blunt/Hostess Quickly/ Constable of France/ Queen Isabel), William Sturdivant (Henry Bolingbroke/King Henry IV/ Gower), U. Jonathan Toppo (Bardolph/ Duke of Burgandy), David Whalen (Thomas Mowbray/Earl of Salisbury/Keeper of the Prison/Earl of Douglas/Pistol), Stephen Yoakam (Henry Percy of Northumberland/ Fluellen).