Monday, March 3, 2014

Henry V (2nd Stage 2014 Production) Theatre Review

In Shakespeare’s day when people talked of going to the theatre, they said they were going to hear a play, not see it. That tells us the focus was on the words, on the poetry of the piece, and not so much on the spectacle. From what we know, the Elizabethan theatre did not have grand set designs or use a lot of set pieces. These were painted with words, and with the imaginations of those in the audience.

That is especially true of Henry The Fifth, with the part of the Chorus telling us as much, and asking us to fill in with our minds what could not be brought physically onto the stage. And so in that way the new 2nd Stage Production of Henry V seems very much in keeping with the traditions of Shakespeare, though it is done in modern dress.

The theatre, part of the Pacific Resident Theatre, is one of those small, black-box theatres. It is a very small space, which of course provides an intimate experience for the audience. But this company really makes the most of the space they have. Somehow the stage never felt cramped.

It does always feel a little weird to me when companies do modern dress versions of the histories. After all, these plays are about very specific people who lived at very specific times. But this production makes it work, and they do it right from the moment the house is opened. When the audience enters, David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” is playing. The actors are on the stage, as actors, not yet the characters, and so it is natural that they are in modern dress. There is a large card table and several chairs on the stage. There is a folder ladder leaning upstage. Through an upstage curtain we can see into the backstage area, with the makeup mirrors and flowers on the counter. At the start of the show, someone calls from the back of the house, “Places everyone.” One of the actors in the backstage area asks, “Morgan, what was that?

The actors begin all seated around the table, and one actor picks up a copy of Shakespeare’s play and begins to read it: “O, for a muse of fire.” And suddenly he becomes the Chorus, and puts down the text. He acknowledges the small space with the line “Can this cockpit/Hold the vasty fields of France?” And the line gets a knowing laugh from the other actors as well as the audience. And then suddenly on “two mighty monarchies,” the actors jump up, splitting into two groups, and moving the table and chairs as well. The sudden movement is startling and exciting.

I love the way the Chorus interacts with the others players at first as players and then as characters. It feels very natural and fluid, and works to pull us right into the play. And in further speeches by the Chorus, the company helps to create the scene that he describes. For example, when he talks about the “fleet majestical,” the others create a boat from the table and chairs, moving with the waves.

This production stresses King Henry’s youth and his spotty past, and does so in several ways. First, the actor is dressed in a Slayer T-shirt. But also, this production makes much use of both parts of King Henry The Fourth, which works to show Henry’s progress and development. After the opening Chorus, we actually go back to The First Part Of King Henry The Fourth, when Falstaff asks Prince Hal, “shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king,” and the friends are gathered around. This is happening stage left, while stage right is Henry IV, speaking lines from The Second Part Of King Henry The Fourth: “O my poor kingdom! Sick with civil blows.” And then Prince Hal leaves the group stage left and goes to speak to his father, to kneel beside him, which is a really nice moment. We get the crowning of Henry V, and his subsequent turning away of Falstaff.

The production then moves to Henry V, with that great long speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the French claim. This speech is delivered partly to the audience. Interestingly, in the middle of the speech, we go briefly back to Henry IV giving advice to Prince Hal (“busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”), working almost like a flashback does in film, as those lines directly pertain to the matter at hand. And, as it should, the “clear as is the summer’s sun” line draws a big laugh.

After the treasure is revealed to be tennis balls, there is a nice long pause before Henry V laughs and says, “We are glad the dauphin is so pleasant with us.” Joe McGovern as Henry V really does a great job with this scene. He turns around, so the messenger starts to leave, then stops her with the “rackets” line. The messenger had left up the aisle in the middle of the audience, so then Henry delivers his great speech out toward the audience.

There is a bit more from The First Part Of King Henry The Fourth with Falstaff before we get the reactions to Falstaff’s death. By the way, that scene is done really well. I particularly enjoyed Joan Chodorow’s performance as Mistress Quickly. Even after Falstaff’s death, his presence is felt throughout the production, as is Henry The Fourth’s. And this of course acts as a reminder of Henry The Fifth’s past and his youth, and actually works to keep his youth as an element in the present, in his present decisions as king.

This entire cast is quite strong. Most of them play multiple roles throughout the production, and without costume changes they are able to make each character distinct so that there is no confusion about who is who. Alex Fernandez is excellent as the Chorus, and then he so easily makes the transition into Westmoreland. Dennis Madden does a splendid job of creating two very distinct characters in Falstaff and the French King, especially physically. Oscar Best is also wonderful as Exeter. When speaking to the Dauphin, he pointedly pronounces his name as “Dolphin,” which is interesting, as that is actually the spelling used throughout the play in the First Folio. Joe McGovern chooses his moments well to let Henry’s youth be shown. For example, I love the natural, playful delivery on “excess of wine.”

Carole Weyers and Joan Chordorow are both absolutely delightful as Katharine and Alice in the English lesson scene. The scene has just the right comedic flair. Alice crosses herself before saying the dirty-sounding words. Terrance Elton is wonderful as the Dauphin, particularly when talking about his horse. He is so clearly completely in love with the animal. And Michael Prichard’s response as the Constable is perfect, with that pause between “excellent” and “horse.” The Constable gives serious, straight deliveries of all those funny lines about the Dauphin.

Norman Scott is great as Pistol, especially when pleading for his friend’s life and in the scene in the camp with the disguised Henry (though I could do without him flipping Henry off – that somehow didn’t feel right). Yancy Holmes is really good as Gower, giving that character a wonderful energy.

The production moves at a quick pace. That, of course, is helped by the lack of set changes. And though it moves quickly, it never really feels rushed.

There are some cuts, of course. Cambridge and Grey are cut, and so Scroop is the only traitor. Interestingly, he tries to attack Henry and is subdued before confessing his fault. Henry looks away when proclaiming his death sentence, facing the audience, and so we are able to see how hard this is on him. Also, Bardolph is cut (though still mentioned), so it is Nym that is to be executed in this production. That scene actually provides another flashback moment with Falstaff, when he gives his famous speech about not being banished. Henry gives that great reply: “I do, I will.” The lighting then returns to normal, and Henry turns to Nym for “We would have all such offenders so cut off.” It works really well, and is actually one of the production’s strongest, most poignant moments.

Bates and Court are cut, and so Williams alone talks with Henry in the camp scene. Henry comes across as angry in this scene, and he becomes angrier as the scene progresses, leading to the bit with the gloves. However, the scene where Henry asks Fluellen to wear the glove in his cap is cut, so the resolution of the gloves is a bit awkward.

But the only cut that I really wish had not been made was the beginning of Act IV Scene vii, regarding the killing of the boys. For me, it’s one of the most moving moments of the play, especially as it leads to Henry’s fury and the lines: “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant.” What’s wonderful about that is that it’s immediately followed by Montjoy’s entrance telling Henry that the day is his. Because of Henry’s despair and anger, he is unable to enjoy the victory in that moment. And I think Shakespeare is making an important point about war here.

The production does do an interesting thing with that moment in place of those lines, using white papers and then red papers thrown over a slow-motion battle moment, which works as well (and seems to me to be a nod to the War of the Roses which would soon engulf England). And I do love that Montjoy is left along on stage for a moment, overlooking the field of battle. Tracie Lockwood as Montjoy is particular great in that scene.

The last scene of Henry V is a difficult one to do, because the tone is so different. But this cast handles it quite well. I love Henry’s casual, honest, plain delivery on “Do you like me, Kate?” The Slayer T-shirt works to make us think of him as Hal again rather than as a king in the wooing scene, giving the scene a sort of youthful, awkward element. (Which makes their sudden parting on “Here comes your father” work, as if they’re teenagers who’ve been caught.) And I love that the scene is allowed to play out. The stuff about the kiss plays really well. And the way this production ends the play is perfect.

There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene vi. This production of Henry V was directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, and is scheduled to run through March 23rd. The Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 707 Venice Blvd. in Venice.

(Note: The run of this production has been extended through April 20, 2014.)

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