With blue fire animating her eyes and spittle flying, Michelle Barber parries and chops and lunges, slashing the air with guttural sounds as the title character in Ten Thousand Things’ production of “Henry IV, Part One.” She plunges her sword deep into an imagined enemy, twists it, then lets out a primal scream.
Barber’s Henry is a man who has risen to power at the tip of his bloody sword. Now he has to hold on to his throne as rebels, including Hotspur (Anna Sundberg), nip at his heels while his son, Prince Hal (Shá Cage), hangs out with bad company.
Director Michelle Hensley’s visceral production of William Shakespeare’s history play, which opened Thursday at Bedlam Lowertown in St. Paul and continues for the next four weekends at Open Book in Minneapolis, is engaging from start to finish.
Pared down to a two-act drama, this staging is noteworthy for a battery of reasons, including its all-female cast. The gender frame doesn’t come off as gimmicky. Rather, it brings ideas about masculinity and femininity into high relief, especially in a scene in which Hotspur roughly leaves his pleading wife. (It is also refreshing to see women onstage doing some of the naughty, mucky things that women do offstage — carousing, telling dirty jokes and killing.)
Before long, the gender of the players fades into the background as we become hooked by the story and the power of these fiercely engaging performers.
Neither Barber nor Cage would be considered classic Shakespearean actors. Yet in their contemporary carriage and in their honest delivery, we see characters we know. Barber’s King Henry is a man who feels pain for his wastrel son while being driven by duty. Cage is magisterial, finding the stolid strength of a young man striking out on his own, even if his father disagrees with his choices.
Sundberg brings a keening precision to Hotspur, a rebel with a laser focus on power. She also has a sense of playfulness, in her cadences and in her interactions with the audience.
Viewers, however, best enter the show through Karen Wiese-Thompson’s Falstaff. A bawdy, besotted schlub, Falstaff is the wise fool and comic relief of the play. Wiese-Thompson nails the role with a masterful performance.
But every performer in “Henry IV” has a commendable moment, from Meghan Kreidler as Mortimer and Thomasina Petrus as the Sheriff to George Keller in multiple roles. Keller has a funny, improvised bit with Wiese-Thompson at the beginning of the second act.
Director Hensley, aided by music director and Foley artist Peter Vitale, goes for meaning, clarity and relatability in her staging. This show, like others at Ten Thousand Things, is performed with the house lights up and minimal props. We are all in this experience together, Hensley’s approach says, and we’re here to play.