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Inner, outer conflicts propel USF’s captivating ‘Henry V’

“A kingdom for a stage, princes to act. And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”

Shakespeare’s own thrilling words inspire the “muse of fire” that animates “Henry V,” the crown jewel (so far) of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s 55th season, the first in the festival’s new Engelstad Shakespeare Theatre.

Within the state-of-the-art “Wooden O,” this “Henry V” continues USF’s ambitious history cycle (presenting Shakespeare’s English history plays in chronological order), which began in 2013 with “King John” and “Richard II.”

Over the past two years, the two parts of “Henry IV” have introduced us to the man who would, someday, be king: the monarch formerly known as Prince Hal (once again played by outwardly clear, inwardly cloudy Sam Ashdown).

All too aware he’s inherited the crown his father stole from his cousin Richard II, the former good-time prince must put aside his feckless past, if not the lessons learned from his surrogate father — the rambunctious, life-embracing knight Sir John Falstaff — and start acting like a king.

Which, in this case, means war with France — conveniently proving not only Henry’s ability to lead but his divine right to do so.

Director Brian Vaughn has been down this road many times before — on stage as “Henry V’s” title character and as director of both halves of “Henry IV.”

This production shows Vaughn fully in command, balancing the play’s battlefield conflicts with the war going on inside Henry himself as he struggles to determine exactly what kind of king he truly is — and must be.

Augmenting some of Shakespeare’s most glorious language, Vaughn’s striking staging heightens “Henry V’s” impact — especially during the battle of Agincourt, when relentless rows of archers augment the sword-wielding combatants on stage. Scott Davis’ scenic design, with its off-kilter stage frame and dripping-wax motif, adds to the sense of life (and death) hanging in the balance.

Yet even when the lone Chorus wanders the stage (significantly, he’s costumed in white — and played by Larry Bull, who portrayed Henry IV, giving the character a decidedly ghostly air), invoking that “muse of fire,” this “Henry V” demonstrates its power to stir the blood, captivate the mind and ignite the spirit.

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