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Petaluma Shakespeare Company presents ‘Henry IV, Part One’

Let’s say your dad is a powerful man, a leader, a king - and he expects you to follow in his footsteps and be responsible, admirable, boring. But there’s this other guy, a knight named John Falstaff. He’s kind of a scoundrel, known to steal anything not nailed down, and he drinks too much. But he and his friends - who all hang out at dive bars downtown - are a lot more fun than your dad and all of his by-the-book advisors. Still, your dad’s your dad, not that he’s a saint or anything - he basically stole the throne from the previous king, then had the guy killed. And you know that Falstaff is just using you, counting on you to set him up for life once you become king yourself.

But then, without warning, your country is attacked by some very dangerous people, led by a very driven guy who very much wants to put your dad in prison and take over throne for himself.

You know you have to choose between stepping up and helping your dad stay in power, or just hiding out and staying drunk with your friends.

What’s a kid to do?

That’s the storyline and basic set up of William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part One,” opening this weekend, kicking off Petaluma Shakespeare Company’s free annual Shakespeare at the River series. Founded in 2015, the company - which performs outdoors on the green at the Foundry Wharf - has previously presented the comedies “Taming of the Shrew” and “As You Like It.”

“I wanted to do something different this year, and I thought it was time to do one of Shakespeare’s histories,” says the show’s director Skylar Evans, adding that of all the Bard’s histories, “Henry IV, Part One” (not so much the gloomier Part Two), is a proven crowd-pleaser, though not staged as often as plays like “Richard III” and “Henry V.”

“Still, it’s a really good story,” Evans says. “It’s got a lot of action, and with Falstaff, who drops some of the best insults that Shakespeare ever wrote, it’s probably also the funniest of all of Shakespeare’s histories. So we decided to do it.”

In the play, which Evans has set in modern times, Falstaff is played by SSU grad Nick Christenson, a regular player at a number of North Bay theater companies, with a knack for physical comedy and several Shakespeare roles under his belt since graduating from SSU.

“Nick brings a lot to the table,” says Evans of his decision to cast Christenson. “Nick was far-and-away the right person for the show. Falstaff is a very comedic character, and Nick is very adept at comedy.” To play Hal, Evans cast Anya Cherniss, though he makes it clear she’s playing Hal as a young man.

“It just worked, the energy she has, and the chemistry she has with Nick and with Neil.”

Neil Thollander plays Hal’s father, King Henry.

The rest of the cast reflects the same gender-blind casting established with Cherniss.

“We had auditions, and I cast the best people for each role, regardless of whether they are male or female,” Evans explains. “I actually have more women than men in this production. It wasn’t really a political statement or anything. It was a purely artistic choice.”

That said, putting together this production has definitely been more than just an artistic experience for the director. Earlier this year, Evans’ father passed away unexpectedly, at the age of 48. The personal loss, he says, has become an integral part of the telling of this story. It is, in fact, another key reason for choosing to do “Henry IV, Part One” in the first place.

“I was feeling all of these emotions about my dad,” Evans says, “all the stages of grief, right? And part of me was thinking about how therapeutic theater can be, so I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to do a ‘father play.’

The loss of his own father, he explains, led to his directorial choice of presenting all of the play’s characters without judgment.

“I’ve found it easy to judge my parents in the past,” he admits, “because that’s what we do. Hal judges his dad pretty harshly. He is torn between being his own person and being who others want him to be - and then he’s torn between the needs of these two father figures.”

Evans says he also feels empathy for the character of Hotspur, an English nobleman who led the rebellion against Henry IV after years of broken promises.

“I have a lot sympathy for Hotspur,” says Evans. “It would be very easy to make him the bad guy. But I want to honor where he comes from. His family has a legitimate grievance. There is a lot of truth to what they are feeling. A whole lot of war and death might have been averted had they been listened to, and not cast aside.”

(Email David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)

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