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The scholars call Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1" a "history play," but that classification seems way too stodgy for this mix of bawdy humor, political infighting, hand-to-hand combat and messy family dynamics.

From the moment Richmond Shakespeare's production of this juicy classic begins, it positively crackles with energy, wit and bravado.

The titular King Henry, played with majestic ferocity by Jack Parrish, emerges dramatically from a cloud of smoke, barking commands at his entourage and immediately commanding our attention. With the introduction of each compelling character, the show only gets better.

The king's son (Phil Brown) -- also named Henry but known to his drunken, gadabout friends as Hal — spurns his father's court, preferring a life of debauchery. He's egged on by morality-free knight John Falstaff (Daryl Clark Phillips), whose extravagant tales are exceeded only by his massive girth. Meanwhile, danger looms as hotheaded warrior Henry Percy (James Ricks) plots insurrection against the king.

Each actor tears into his or her role. Ricks nearly levitates off the stage with rage, while Brown projects a muscular, captivating charm that will blossom into true nobility by the play's end. Phillips raises buffoonery to high art but also manages to locate a slippery soul beneath the greed, deceit and sloth.

The talent doesn't stop with the leads. Supporting players (most notably Grant Mudge in several roles) provide numerous delights throughout.

Costume designer Rebecca Cairns decks out the crew regally, with the low-cut, leather-heavy battle outfit of king's lieutenant Captain Blunt (Jacqueline O'Connor) a particular standout.

This "Henry" doesn't have the memorable soliloquies of "Hamlet" or "Macbeth," but it's still chock-full of marvelous turns of phrase, most notably the abundant insults tossed about ("You bull's pizzle!" "You vile standing-tuck!") This may be history, but it powers along like a soap opera on steroids. S

"Henry IV, Part 1" plays at Agecroft Hall Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 5. Tickets are $13-$24. Call 232-4000 or visit www.richmondshakespeare.com.

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