West Virginia’s only Shakespearean troupe is setting October ablaze 

Review by Susan Johnson 

            I’ve seen a ton of Shakespeare in my seven decades, but the lively performance of “Henry IV, Part One” by The Rustic Mechanicals in Richwood on October 14 was hands-down my favorite.  West Virginia’s ridiculously talented Shakespearean troupe is based out of Clarksburg’s Vintage Theatre.  The group gave back-to-back  productions in Marlinton’s Pocahontas Opera House on October 13 and then in Richwood’s Community Center.   That performance was brilliantly directed, impeccably rehearsed, and crisply paced.   Every actor was dead on.  Every. Single. Second. 

            Sarah Young was ever so convincing in the male role of Prince Hal, the prodigal son of King Henry IV.  Her Hal was clearly enjoying the heck out of his bawdy life, poking fun at the debauched Falstaff, testing the patience of his sober father.  The actress deftly drew the irony and wit out of every line Shakespeare assigned to her character.  

              As the hot-blooded Hotspur, Justin Grow provided a perfect foil to Hal’s cavalier cool.  He dominated every scene he was in with his barely controlled rage born of political grievance. His inevitable sword fight with Hal in the final act was the turning point for the future king.  Hal is one of Shakespeare’s favorite characters, and from the time Sarah Young appears on stage with her cheek bloodied from war, Hal is beginning to grow into his future robes.  He learns less about life from his real father, though, than he learns from his drinking buddy, Sir John Falstaff. 

             I couldn’t take my eyes off Stephen Phillips in dual roles of Edmund Mortimer and Peto, a silly companion of Falstaff.  Phillips emotes from every muscle in his face.  I loved the scene with his Welsh wife, played by the capable Seret Cole who gamely sings a lovely Welsh ballad.    Mortimer loves his lady with an immature passion–so intense yet goofy, he vows one day to learn her language.   

             This was Falstaff’s show, though, just like “Henry IV, Part One” is Falstaff’s play.  (The character appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays and was an audience favorite during the heyday of the Elizabethan theatre.)  Jason A Young filled up the role of Falstaff in the Richwood performance like an overstuffed wine skin—almost spilling at the seams with his brimming brio.  He did what only the best actors know how to do: he made Shakespeare contemporary.  Dressed in a buffalo-checked flannel shirt and suspenders, the brilliant actor lapsed into hillbilly twang in a couple of places.  He engaged with the audience so adroitly I almost suspected they were part of the cast.  His famous soliloquy on the subject of honor reminded me that, while the modern world is letting slip the dogs of war in places like Ukraine and Israel, “the better part of valor is [and always should be] discretion.” 

               There wasn’t a weak performance in the entire cast, from the stately King Henry Bullingbrook, played by Joshua Brooks, to the barmaid at the Boar’s Head Tavern played by the delightful Samantha Huffman.   This was a writers’ performance as much as it was an actors’ performance. To a person, each actor paid tribute to the irony, the wit, the poetry, the sheer brilliance of the greatest writer in the history of the English language. 

                Other members of the troupe include Sinead Pechon, Jim Matthews, Calian Byard, Niki DeWitt. 

             Since their start in 2014, The Rustic Mechanicals is the only troupe of actors in the state dedicated to touring the works of William Shakespeare and other classical playwrights, according to their website.  The Rustic Mechanicals have a busy fall season in the coming weeks as they travel around the state performing this play and Hamlet.  Perhaps the best place to see them is at ShaketoberFest 2023 at the Vintage Theatre in  Clarksburg, WV Oct. 26-29.  There you can see six shows in four days and support troupes from West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania in the process.            

All photos courtesy of The Rustic Mechanicals.

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