Away we go -- "Once more, unto the breach, dear friends" -- in the robust "Henry V," a vivid interpretation now in rotation with "Henry IV" in the Shakespeare Glen near the Art Museum in Forest Park.
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis' top-shelf roster of actors rises to the herculean challenge of performing two historical dramas back-to-back, and the result is a bracing one-two punch. You can enjoy each one separately outdoors on alternate evenings.
"Henry V" opened Saturday, bolstered by dazzling action set pieces -- notably a smoky, cinematic battle scene and a sea voyage recreated for the stage. There is more exciting swordplay, of course, and a grim hanging, as this rich tableau concerns the Hundred Years War. Shakespeare focused on before and after the crucial Battle of Algincourt 1415-1420.
King Henry's advisers think it's a good idea for him to conquer France. Let the maneuvering begin, naturally involving treachery and conspiracy. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, a superb Gary Glasgow gets the attentive crowd's biggest reaction when he explains his reasoning.
As the history books recorded, 5,000 English defeated 60,000 French, and less than 100 British were killed. Quite the triumph for our former playboy prince.
The decisive sovereign, fervently believing God is on his side, will rally the badly outnumbered troops, mourn the sacrifices, honor valor, deal swiftly with betrayal, and woo a French princess in a royal marriage transaction.
Jim Butz is an intense and passionate King Henry, transforming before our eyes into an honorable ruler. The famous "band of brothers" speech is splendid, and his first encounter with Kate (Dakota Mackey-McGee), daughter of King Charles VI, is delightful.
Conspicuous in this sprawling ensemble is Dan Haller, a young teen from Columbia, Ill., who shines in a larger role as Falstaff's Page.
With his distinctive vocal delivery, Anderson Matthews excels as the chorus, bridging the action sequences with exposition.
Other notables include Antonio Rodriguez, whose renowned crystal tenor is put to good use as Lord Rambures, and Jerry Vogel as the comical Pistol.
The dynamic Charles Pasternak takes on two roles -- the insulting Dauphin and the deceitful Earl of Cambridge -- with aplomb.
The ensemble's energy is laudable, abetted by Bruce Longworth's crisp, lucid direction. He advances the plot briskly.
Scott C. Neale's simplistic wooden stage is a modern marvel -- allows for fluid movement while functional for all the show's needs. And the lighting by John Wylie punctuates the moods perfectly.
This ambitious 14th season has proven to be an astonishing display of superior theater -- do not miss it. Organizers provide program notes and a large graphic display so that you can become familiar with the story, and the actors take us back 600 years with polish and pizzazz.
What: "Henry V"
Who: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
When: Now through June 15
Where: Forest Park, St. Louis
Weather hotline: 314-531-9800 ext. 7 and Twitter: @shakesfeststl