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Volunteers answer dramatic call to arms to stage ‘Henry IV’ battle scene in Philly

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“We simulate a battle. There is artillery and people are dying,” said Sean McGarry, his red shirt indicating his loyalty to the king of England. “One half simulates a fortress, and the other simulates firing canons at a fortress.”

McGarry and 80 other volunteers will fill the east side of Clark Park (aka the “dog bowl”) Wednesday through Sunday at 7 p.m. to fight (and fight again) the epic 15th-century Battle of Shrewsbury that would determine the future of England.

William Shakespeare used that battle as the climax of his “King Henry IV,” including descriptions of off-stage battle action to which characters onstage would refer.

“In most productions there are 12 to15 actors making that happen, but you don’t see the battle happen. You see the side scenes,” said Alex Torra, director of “King Henry IV: Your Prince and Mine” in Clark Park.

“We decided to skip of that, and go quite literal.”

As Prince Hal, King Henry, and Hotspur duke it out with boastful words in the park under evening floodlights, behind them two 40-member armies march down the east ridge to put those words to action.

“Doomsday is near!” cries the rebel Hotspur. “Die all, die merrily!”

“It takes me back to band camp, because we’re all marching. It’s pretty rhythmic,” said Erin Carney, 23, an actress who decided to join the army after being passed over for a speaking part.

The ranks are filled by people from all walks of life: actors between gigs, bankers, engineers, nonprofit administrators, children out of school for the summer, and teachers looking for a summer hobby.

“I hadn’t been around non-theater people in a really long time. It was wonderful to see a coming-together of people,” said Carney. “How enthusiastic and delightful it’s been has really been a surprise to me.”

Carney is a “chaser.” There are also “diers,” soldiers whose job it is to die on the field, a physically challenging part because there are three distinct battles: diers fall and bounce up, then fall again, over and over.

“There’s a lot of yelling and running around, and the people have been a lot of fun to work with,” said Jeffrey Womack, 34, who has the summer off from teaching history at Drexel University. “Smaller groups have formed closer bonds, and gotten to know each other pretty well.”

This kind of spectacle theater is rare in Philadelphia. It requires a lot of space, a lot of work, and a lot of money to pull off. With a few acres of lawn, several months of mustering a volunteer army, and a $35,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, the armies are prepared to enter combat.

“This is something they are going to feel for the first time this week — what it is to work hard for lots of weeks and make a thing and then share it with a lot of people,” said Torra. “It’s an addictive thing.”

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