Sunday, February 11, 2018

Henry V (A Noise Within’s 2018 Production) Theatre Review

Production photo by Craig Schwartz
The Life Of Henry The Fifth, almost always shortened to Henry V, is a play that some see as a celebration of nationalistic pride while others see in it a condemnation of war. Of course, there are elements of both, as Shakespeare never seemed to see things in such simplistic terms. But in these strange times of a divided nation, when nationalism is once again raising its dangerous voice, which elements would be stressed in a production of the play? Would the St. Crispin’s Day speech be as rousing as in times past? Would there be little winks and nods at certain lines, letting a modern sensibility comment on the action?

The talented company at A Noise Within mostly lets Shakespeare’s play speak for itself in the new production of Henry V, which opened last night in Pasadena. It is presented in more modern dress, and stresses the role of the Chorus, emphasizing, as the Chorus does in the text, that the action presented is a simulation, falling short of the reality of war. The set works well in this regard, with a large set piece of five levels upstage creating the sense of seating at an arena. As it is a thrust stage, this effectively makes the audience part of that arena too, as it completes the circle of seats around the stage. This is a really interesting effect, as it makes us feel more a part of the action while simultaneously stressing the artificiality of the action. The Chorus, by the way, is played by multiple actors throughout the performance. So instead of an outsider, a narrator, commenting on the play, it is as if the actors themselves are adding to their performances by giving us more information. This presents some wonderful opportunities for metatheatre, as when Erika Soto, who plays Katharine, speaks as the Chorus of the offer of Katharine to Henry: “the king doth offer him/Katharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry,/Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.” It’s a delightful and humorous moment.

When the play opens, the actors enter the stage from several different locations (including some surprising ones), carrying modern lanterns and dressed entirely in dark clothes, like they’re taking part in a secret military action. Several then perform the Chorus’ opening speech, and the dark, simple clothing really works with the Chorus’ line “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” Apart from the audience’s thoughts and the play’s lines, only a crown indicates which character is a king. And yet, throughout this production, there is absolutely no confusion about who is who, never an uncertainty about who is speaking.

When Henry V (Rafael Goldstein) asks “May I with right and conscience make this claim,” he rises and walks forward, and we see he is ready to go to war, hoping for an affirmative answer to his question, even before the insulting message from the Dauphin. As for the “treasure,” in this production it is in what looks like a gym bag labeled “KING HENRY V,” rather than in a tun, as indicated in the text. However, a gym bag is all too fitting for the tennis balls contained inside, so it isn’t as surprising or insulting as it is when they are inside a cask or coffer. This is one of the few moments when the modern style causes something of a loss.

Sometimes in this production, actors who are not part of a particular scene will remain on stage, seated on the set piece upstage. For example, Jeremy Rabb, who plays Bardolph, is seated during the Chorus’ speech that begins the second act. At the end of that speech, the Chorus tosses him the hat which allows him to then become Bardolph and begin the scene. That scene is wonderful, by the way. I particularly enjoy the varying deliveries of Nym’s “that is the humor of it.” Bardolph, Nym, Pistol and Mistress Quickly represent Henry V’s youth and past, and they are, in some ways, the common heart of the piece. Later, when those characters enter solemnly after the death of Falstaff, Henry V remains on stage, standing at the top level far upstage. This creates a meaningful stage picture, as he is essentially above them, looking down at them. Is that how he feels, that he is above them now? Or is that how they feel about him, that he is beyond them, no longer one of them? Henry V takes off his crown at the end of the scene, as if in honor of Falstaff’s memory, a touching moment.

The Chorus’ speech that starts the second act is actually split in this production, with the lines about the three conspirators coming after the scene with Bardolph and Nym and the others, and so right before the scene where Henry confronts them. Interestingly, the actors playing the conspirators identify themselves by shouting out their names as the Chorus mentions them. In that scene, Henry V wears sunglasses – the crown and sunglasses together creating a strange image. (By the way, the King of France walks with the use of a cane, and wears reading glasses at one point, in contrast to youthful Henry’s sunglasses.) This is an excellent scene, tense and intriguing and well-acted. Rafael Goldstein does a wonderful job as Henry V through the play, but this scene in particular is one of his best. Kasey Mahaffy turns in another of evening’s best performances as the Dauphin. (Actually, he turns in two excellent performances, the other as Nym.) I love his twisted joy as he insults Henry V. I also love Stephen Weingartner’s performance as Williams, the soldier who exchanges gloves with the disguised Henry. And, what will come as no surprise to Shakespeare fans in Los Angeles, Erika Soto is wonderful as Katharine and Boy. I’ve seen her play Juliet, Cordelia, Miranda, and several other key roles in Shakespeare’s works, and she is always a pleasure to watch. She never fails to bring something special, fresh and surprising to the parts she plays.

Even though the Chorus has warned us that the battles might not be presented completely, the fight scenes in this production are handled really well. The first one is sudden and intense, and makes great use of that large set piece upstage, leading to the famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” line. The main battle scene is likewise intense and strong. And, if you were wondering, the St. Crispin’s Day speech is still quite powerful and moving, and Rafael Goldstein does an excellent job with it.

This production, in general, moves rather swiftly. There are, of course, some major cuts. Gone is most of Fluellen’s role, as well as Gower and Captain Jamy. Alice is completely cut, and so the scene where Katharine is learning English is mostly missing. What we get is the briefest of moments of Katharine alone, reciting the English words for a few body parts. So the humor of the scene is gone. In this production, it is Nym rather than Bardolph who is hanged, while Henry watches. Perhaps the strangest cut is the dialogue between Fluellen and Gower about the slaughter of the boys, particularly as Henry’s response to it – “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant” – is left in. Because what leads to that line is gone, the audience’s reaction to the line is different. Still, most of the cut material is not missed, particularly as the production has an excellent momentum and pace. This production also has a certain beauty in its style and execution.

There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming almost directly after Nym’s death. This production of Henry V is directed by Julia Rodriquez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, and runs in repertory with A Raisin In The Sun through early April at A Noise Within, located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. There is free parking at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure.

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