scene from Henry IV
Gregory Sanders, Neill Robertson, Chrystian Wiltshire and Zachary Burrell in “Henry IV, Part 2” | Photo by Bill Brymer

By Ben Gierhart

My love for Shakespeare goes way back to my elementary school drama club days when I played Peter Quince in a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I fell in love with the magic — no pun intended — of that play, and my first exposure to the Bard’s words was intoxicating.

I remember receiving a hardbound “Complete Works” for Christmas that year that still sits on my bookshelf.

Over the years, I have read all the plays — some only once, some several times. I loved them all, but for whatever reason, I always seemed to struggle with the histories the most. I could be wrong, but I believe that is a difficulty even the most ardent Shakespeare fans possess.

Tom Luce as Henry IV
Tom Luce as Henry IV | Photo by Bill Brymer

Kentucky Shakespeare continues to impress and prolong the invigoration it received from its renaissance begun with Matt Wallace in 2014.

It is amazing to think Louisville and the rest of Kentucky have been imbued with such a gift for five years, especially armed with the knowledge that we were so close to losing it.

But I digress.

“Henry IV, Part 2” serves as the latest entry in Kentucky Shakespeare’s Henriad series that has included the previously produced “Richard II” and “Henry IV, Part 1.”

The traditional Henriad cycle usually concludes with “Henry V,” but some argue over the inclusion of the “Henry VI” plays and “Richard III.”

But enough of my history lesson, as Kentucky Shakespeare has done so much of that work so brilliantly on stage.

None of the struggles I had with this play when I read it at 13 was present in this production. Needless to say, I am (arguably) now an adult, but I have to give credit to the comedic work of J. Barrett Cooper (Falstaff), Jennifer Pennington (Hostess Quickly), Kyle Ware (Pistol/Earl of Westmorland), Gregory Maupin (Lord Chief Justice) and Neill Robertson (Bardolph).

The mark of any professional Shakespearian production is the grasp of the language. Indeed, I could listen to Jon Becraft (Lord Hastings/Gloucester) speak verse for days.

That eloquence is on display in spades here, but what’s more, it seems as though every opportunity for wit is deftly wrung for those words by these actors. There’s an attention to the audience rather than to the sound of one’s own voice at work. The Bard himself would be proud.

a scene from Henry IV
Jon Huffman, Amber Avant and Abigail Bailey Maupin | Photo by Bill Brymer

Beyond comedy, “Henry IV” contains heaving themes involving the pains of growing up, accepting responsibility and becoming more than anyone thought you could be.

These weighty subjects would not have come across without the fine work of Zachary Burrell (Prince Hal) and Tom Luce (Henry IV). Hal’s transformation to Henry V at play’s end is both believable and oddly relatable thanks to these actors’ craftsmanship and that of Director Amy Attaway.

In short, go see this play. Everything from the acting to the fight choreography to the sound, lighting and scenic design is a gift to Kentucky. I eagerly await what Kentucky Shakespeare has in store for us in this series next year.

“Henry IV, Part 2” continues — free of charge — through July 19 at Old Louisville’s Central Park. Food and drinks begin at 7 p.m., and the show starts at 8.