The history of the traces back to the Kennedy administration and the mythical “Camelot” era of the United States.
Five decades later, the longest-running Shakespeare theater on America’s East Coast—and one recognized internationally for its consistency of excellence—will begin its 50th anniversary season in royal fashion.
Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte says the season-opener, “Henry IV, Part One,” which opens Wednesday, will be presented in grand traditional style.
A slight departure, perhaps, from the reverent-yet-innovative productions the company is known for, but Monte said that this special milestone deserved a production that encompasses the qualities that have drawn people to Shakespeare for 400 years.
“It’s one of the most popular history plays and it has not been done here in some 20 years,” she said. “It’s kind of a wonderfully grand way to kick things off. And one that people love. The characters are not unfamiliar. It’s energized, it’s rowdy, it’s raucous, it’s filled with all of the things we think of when we think of Shakespeare."
Monte will direct Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” later in the season, but she’s turned “Henry” over to her trusted associate artistic director, Madison native and Drew University graduate Joe Discher.
“There were lots and lots of reasons, most of which were logistics, but I thought it would be great because Joe is celebrating his 22nd season with us too, to let him kick off the season in big epic Shakespearean style,” Monte said.
, “Henry” will feature and honor many of the most popular actors and actresses the company has featured over the years.
“It’s a hard play to cast because you need an extraordinarily large group of extraordinarily wonderful male actors of all types,” she said. “It was a lot of fun putting it all together, but to gather 20-something men, all of whom are bursting with testosterone, is both challenging and fun.”
Brent Harris, who played Atticus Finch in is back to play the title character, but the larger roles of Prince Hal and Falstaff will go to Derek Wilson and John Ahlin, respectively. Both are company veterans, with Wilson appearing last year in “No Man’s Land.”
“I’m cast so often as baddies, it’s nice to play a youthful and fun character like Prince Hal,” said Wilson, who is in his seventh season with the company. “And it’s so much fun working with John Ahlin. He’s going to blow you away.”
Ahlin, in his fifth season, plays the outrageous Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters. The large cast also includes fellow company veterans Jon Barker, John Little, Conan McCarty, Doug West, Jeffrey M. Bender and Patrick Toon. Izzie Steele will add a fiery feminine presence as Lady Percy.
The production, according to Monte, will honor two traditions, with medieval costumes that reflect the period of the history play and with staging that honors the Elizabethan period in which it was written.
“That was a very conscious decision when [Discher] and I talked about it,” Monte said. “Again, in a 50th season we said let’s start with what people think is the very essence of Shakespeare. If we wanted to part from that point on, great, but let’s kick things off in grand traditional style.”
“I’ve worked with Joe before and it’s wonderful,” Wilson said. “We’re good friends, so it’s easy and fun, especially the tavern scenes, where we were just ourselves in a way.”
As for assuming what many people consider the play’s lead role, Wilson said he had not thought much about carrying the company banner into its anniversary season.
“It’s really just a matter of doing the job,” he said, adding that the focus of the play “depends on the production. Sometimes it’s Falstaff, sometimes it’s Hal. For me, sometimes I feel very much in Falstaff’s shadow, which is telling, because the play is very much about Hal stepping out of the shadows to fill his role as prince. It’s tough, it’s a challenge.”
“It’s a very big role for him,” Monte agreed.
“Henry IV, Part One” runs May 30 to June 24 at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave. (Route 124) at Drew University, Madison. Tickets $32 to $70. Discounts available for select performances; contact the box office for details. For more information, call 973-408-5600 or visit www.shakespearenj.org.
Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect last name on first reference for Derek Wilson, who is playing Prince Hal.