Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Henry V at the American Shakespeare Center

William Shakespeare's Henry V is a rousing patriotic celebration of the titular warrior king.   It is a account of the pivotal invasion of France and the devastating English victory at the battle of Agincourt during 1415 in which the massive use of the English long bow defeated the larger French army led by the more traditional knights on horseback.    Agincourt ushered in a change in military tactics.   It also ushered in the second phase of the Hundred Years War in France.    And, in the hands of a lesser theater company, the play itself can be a dull, pageant heavy recitation of a highlight reel as the last of the three plays that Shakespeare composed that feature the life of this English national hero.

Fortunate is the audience member who then makes the journey to the Shenandoah Valley to view this masterful production of Henry V.    This version, dynamically directed by Ralph Alan Cohen, weaves a thrilling tale upon the Blackfriar's Playhouse stage.    First and foremost, John Harrell is a natural storyteller as the Chorus.   Narrating the action with the thrill of the old "You Are There" broadcasts he brings genuine wonder to the story he weaves for the audience.   Without his performance setting the tone for the evening, much of the delight would be merely a travelogue recitation (now we are in London, now we are in Southhampton, etc.).  

Being a history play, there are dozens of characters in the play.   Keeping them straight is made easier by the costumes of Jenny McNee, who crafts a color palate and a clear delineation of nationality and status with her 15th century designs.    Yet, it is the sure hand of director Ralph Alan Cohen, who has shaped his ensemble in such a way that personalities flourish.   Everyone is clearly defined as individuals within the various groups whether they be the noble relatives of King Henry V, the sneering disdainful entourage of the French Dauphin or the merry Captains that surround the Welsh Captain Fluellen.

Henry V, the play, acknowledges its past as a sequel to the Henry IV plays in which the youthful Prince Hal carouses with Sir John Falstaff and the merry band from the Boar's Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly, Bardolph, Nym, Pistol and the put-upon Boy.   Within those previous plays, Prince Hal matures first by defeating Hotspur in the climax of Henry IV, Part 1 and then assuming the burdens of the crown and banishing his former mentor and companion, Falstaff.    Here, Shakespeare gives us a proper coda to these memorable characters.   Falstaff dies, off stage, and his death is related with deep poignancy by the eloquent Allison Glenzer's Mistress Quickly.   Bardolph, Nym, Pistol and the Boy join King Henry V's army and travel to France where Bardolph (Chris Johnston)  and Nym (Zachary Brown) are executed for thievery and the Boy (Miriam Donald) perishes when the French attack and kill the young boys who are guarding the English army's baggage train.

It is left to Benjamin Curns' Pistol to carry on in all of his pomposity the vestiges of the merriment from the earlier plays.   Yet, even Pistol, is granted his moments of humanity as he learns that his beloved Mistress Quickly, now his wife, has perished while he has been in France.   Yet, pity not dear Pistol for he meets his comedic match in James Keegan's Captain Fluellen.   Mr. Keegan creates a dynamic patriot out of this proud Welshman and watching him take Pistol down a few notches in a duel that involves the force feeding of leeks is a delight.

Another comedic highlight comes from the brief scene that Captain Fluellen has with Patrick Midgley's Irish Captain MacMorris and Rene Thornton, Jr.'s Scottish Captain Jamy.   To describe the scene in detail would rob the audience of discovering the hilarity on its own.

Switching to the more serious side of the story, that of the conflict between England and France, Mr. Midgley makes a deeper impact in his main role in the play, that of the preening, hot headed Dauphin, the heir to the French throne whose position King Henry V seeks to usurp.   Surrounded by the dripping with distain entourage of Daniel Burrows Constable amongst other French lords, Mr. Midgley creates a young man burning to utterly destroy the English King.   He is mesmerizing.

As the French Princess Katherine, Miriam Donald is a sweet oasis in the midst of war.  Along with Allison Glenzer's Alice, the princess' attendant, we see a young woman sheltered from the seriousness of the war, yet enamored of the possibility that her nation's greatest enemy may be her future husband and love.   The comedic scene in which the princess gets an English lesson is delivered almost entirely in French, yet the scene is accessible and conveys warmth.

Gregory Jon Phelps is a conquering force upon the Blackfriar's Stage.  He is an aristocratic warrior who commands the respect of everyone in every scene.   Yet, Mr. Phelps embraces the moments in the play where Shakespeare allows moments of vulnerability to chip through his kingly armor.   Most famously is during the eve of battle scene where King Henry walks amongst his troops learning what his army is feeling the night before they face overwhelming odds of success.   Mr. Phelps is earnest in conveying his emotions and a highlight is when, King Henry, upon his knees, begs God for acceptance of his atonement for his father's sin of usurping King Richard II.    Yet, the brilliance of Mr. Phelps' performance comes in a fleeting moment.   Pistol comes to the King to beg for Bardolph's life after Bardolph has been caught stealing from a church.   As Pistol relates King Henry's connection to his princely carousing days, Mr. Phelps allows the briefest moment of nostalgia to wax over his expression.   It lasts mere seconds before he resumes his mantle of King sentencing his former companion to death, yet it is in that brief moment that Mr. Phelps' King Henry V becomes a true fully rounded human being.

This dynamic production is worth the journey to the Shenandoah Valley.   Be one of the many to join these few, these happy few who bring such craft to the Blackfriar's Playhouse stage.

William Shakespeare's Henry V will be performed at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia in repertoire with Hamlet, The Tempest, Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest through November 25, 2011.  For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.

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