Jeff DeLeon and Jeremy Mahr in King Henry the Fourth, the Prenzie Players' second presentation in their Henriad trilogy, opened on Friday, and let me preface by admitting that I have a tougher time composing reviews for this troupe's productions than for any other area organization. When faced, in show after show, with such imagination and daring and passion, where does one start?

With King Henry the Fourth, for instance, I could - and should - discuss the ingenuity of J.C. Luxton's pastiche-like adaptation, a model of dramatic clarity that effectively merges Shakespeare's Henry IV parts I and II into a seamless whole. I could expound on the gusto with which the Prenzies stage wildly contrasting elements: The battle scenes aren't just smartly choreographed, they're surprising; and the romantic encounters aren't just believable, they're erotic.

I could talk about the group's superb use of the Masonic Temple space, and their exquisite grasp of just how much audience interaction their material can support, and the typically delightful anachronistic touches. (My favorite touch here was actually a line, when Jeff De Leon's Hal tells Linnea Ridolfi's Meg to open the door to an early-morning visitor, and - having just woken up - she pointedly rejoins, "I don't have any pants on.")

Yet any analysis of King Henry the Fourth - its direction credited to Cait Bodenbender, Tracy Skaggs, Denise Yoder, and "the cast" - is pointless without discussing Prenzie's actors, as the deftness of its ensemble members, nearly across the board, is nothing short of magical.

Our introduction to Jeremy Mahr's Henry is a stunner. It finds the king attending to paperwork while two royal servants wait - and wait - to be acknowledged, and without a word of dialogue, Mahr effortlessly establishes Henry's command and comfort with power; this king will address you when he's good and ready.

And when he is ready, watch out. Mahr's emphatic commitment to character is a palpable force, and as the play progresses, Henry's relationship with his son Hal becomes extraordinarily moving; with Henry's illness making conversation a torture (which Mahr enacts thrillingly well), the actor reveals the king's concern and deep love through gesture and vocal nuance as much as through poetry.

Mahr's finest moments are performed opposite De Leon, which, considering the actor's facility as Hal, is understandable; De Leon gives as rich and multi-dimensional a performance as you could hope for. It would be enough for him to convincingly play a son torn between personal freedom and responsibility, or to pull off a mid-play breakdown with such heartrending emotionalism, or to inventively (and hysterically) portray an on-stage drunk; De Leon's portrayal is so expansive that it leaves you a little shaken. He's something rare in area theatre - a character actor with leading-man presence - and in a run of marvelous turns for the Prenzies, this is De Leon's finest yet.

As the rebellious Hotspur, J.C. Luxton is almost frighteningly focused, yet somehow, the actor also manages to provide King Henry's most sheerly playful performance. Unafraid of making Hotspur a bit nuts, Luxton's readings are never predictable, but never emptily eccentric, either; this intensely gifted and magnetic actor keeps you alert to the whir and hum of Hotspur's mind.

And what of the drunken, gregarious Falstaff, historically Henry IV's most endearing character? He's played here by Brian Nelson, who acts the role well.

He acts the role well. Unfortunately, what he doesn't do - or rather, what he didn't do on Friday night - is truly connect with his fellow actors. Though he tripped over too many lines to develop a satisfying character rhythm, the bigger problem seemed to be one of tone; Nelson's presentational technique is worlds removed from the naturalistic, emotionally specific style of the Prenzies. (King Henry's program references the familiar area performer with "and introducing Brian Nelson as Sir John Falstaff," and that billing is actually less cheeky than it may seem.) The actor has terrific moments - Falstaff's agony at being rejected by Hal is especially fine - and the audience is alive to his comic bluster, but his readings are too traditionally "actorly"; among equally presentational company, Nelson's portrayal may have seemed astounding, but here, it just as often seems uncommitted.

Yet considering the splendid contributions of King Henry's other performers, this lack of a fully present Falstaff, thankfully, isn't debilitating. (Like Nelson, several others make their Prenzie debuts here, but already seem firmly connected to the group's style; Matt Gerard, who assumes several roles, is more alert and forceful than I've ever seen him, and Chris Moore's comic authority is so relaxed that he could already pass as a Prenzie veteran.)

Bryan Woods, with his insinuating brogue, is a subtly intimidating Glendower, and Aaron E. Sullivan, as usual, exudes inspiring confidence and intelligence. (Also as usual, Sullivan is given far too little to do. Does he have a leading role in the offing? Soon?) Maggie Woolley's inebriated Bardolph is hilarious and her Lady Mortimer - which Woolley performs (and sings) in fluent Welsh - heartbreaking, while Linnea Ridolfi again proves to be an adventurous young actor with incredible poise. And Stephanie Burrough (who recently took on a Reader internship) is really something; alternately tragic and highly comic as Mistress Nell and Justice Shallow, she makes two minor roles positively essential through dint of sheer talent.

I may not always know how Prenzie reviews should begin, but with King Henry, at least, I certainly know how one should end: with the audience. On Friday night, nearly all of us leapt to our feet at the finale - before, it should be noted, the cast came out for their curtain call - and applauded long afterward, as if we didn't want the experience to end. Anyone with even a passing interest in the art of stage performance is advised not to miss the Prenzie Players' King Henry the Fourth, as this spectacular ensemble - our answer to Chicago's Steppenwolf company - has taken on yet another theatrical challenge, and has succeeded. Royally.


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