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Of all the history plays of Shakespeare, the one which has always fascinated me most is “Henry V”. From its prologue, which defines the very essence of live theater and the suspension of disbelief, through the humanity of its central figure wrestling with the understood demands of the crown and the lasting echoes of a misspent youth, it has an articulation of language and emotion which have always caught my imagination.
Now a new, pared down version of this great play is opening the spring repertory season at A Noise Within in Pasadena. Gifted with strong and versatile actors and a direction which keeps the play from becoming too static, it seethes with the balance of forces which can make a rational man move into war, and a different, more immature one look upon it as a playful adventure. The great speeches are there, and the essential elements, but the particular editing of the script (though some version is almost always necessary for modern playgoers) leaves a question mark or two.
In this production, and with a couple of exceptions, everyone in the comparatively small company plays at least two and sometimes three parts. Everyone joins in to give parts of the various speeches assigned to Chorus, rather than have someone assigned that part. This proves an interesting effect, although cutting up the speech into chunks may dilute the power of what is said. Even so, that it all works as smoothly as it does is a testament to the versatility of the company, and the singular vision of the directors.
The story is essentially that of Henry’s determination to defeat the army of France and retake lands there which had traditionally belonged to the English crown. It is a tale which, for two reasons, would have been familiar to Shakespeare’s audience. First because Henry was seen and celebrated as a great warrior king. Second because this play followed upon two others about Henry’s youth, and his escapades with some rather questionable cronies, including the wildly popular Sir John Falstaff (Henry IV, parts 1 and 2) and an extra play just about Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor),
Indeed, that character’s popularity had obviously begun to weigh upon the playwright, or the actor playing Falstaff, to the point where this play is used to kill him off.
Which is where the production at ANW becomes interesting. In the editing of the play done, one assumes, by directors Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, the comic characters who had surrounded Falstaff are given fairly short shrift. They show up briefly and some of their more comic moments are cut.
This is perhaps because the focus of this spring repertory is on courage, and too much emphasis on the bawdy or self-serving nature of these comedians would detract from that larger theme. Olivier did much the same – needing to concentrate on Henry the hero – when filming the play during World War II. It works. Still, leaving in an execution scene involving these folk, when you have not explained why that execution would be hard for Henry, makes him seem less conflicted about his role in the life and death decisions his position makes him take. That is unfortunate.
Yet, despite this, the play is very well performed. Rafael Goldstein is Henry, making him intense and direct, but as human as Shakespeare intended – able to rouse men to action and to loyalty while still wrestling with the depth of responsibility which comes with what he is doing, Goldstein excels at this kind of balance, and his work centers the play. As his most obvious foil, Kasey Mahaffy is at his best as the petulant Dauphin, while Erika Soto makes lovely work of the French princess, Katherine, who will be one of Henry’s prizes if he wins. All of this is surrounded by a solidly ensemble cast involving many of the best of the ANW company.
Still, there are a few question marks which must be addressed. The set, by Frederica Nascimento is imposing, but cumbersome. It is often positioned in a way which appears somewhat illogical, and gets in the way of some of the battle scenes. Costumer Angela Balogh Calin has created amorphous-period clothing which suits the militarism of the piece, and allows for the carrying about of broadswords, but why has the fight choreographer, Kenneth R. Merckx, Jr., only given shields to the French? It makes for much noise, but a seemingly unequal fight.
Most uncomfortably, the choice to keep a line without its reason. A sequence has been cut in which the French circumvent Henry’s lines, burn his army’s tents and massacre all the young squires waiting behind the battle. That is fine, as it neatens the whole battle concept, but then why leave in Henry’s statement, written specifically to address hearing of the massacre of these boys, as a closing line to that battle sequence? Without context it becomes wryly comic, and seems out of tune with the character or what is going on.
Which is all to say that the performers are very good, and the production proves powerful and interesting. Its visual feel, except when the set gets in the way, has an authority which ties the piece together well. Using a cast of 16 to play 30+ people resonates with what Shakespeare himself was confronted with. And the play works. One could wish some edits were designed differently, and that a Chorus was there as a single voice to call all to use their imaginations, but Henry survives all of this, and does so with style.
Go see “Henry V”. It is not often done, and this one captures the central points of Shakespeare’s concept: that a man once profligate has molded himself into an inspiring leader, but at a cost. That this king knows war is hell, but counts on God and the loyalty of his diverse army to push through against remarkably uneven odds to the attainment of what he truly believes to be the right. And all this with some of the Bard’s most inspired language.
“Henry V” will soon play in repertory with “A Raisin in the Sun” and, later, the comic “Noises Off”.
What: “Henry V” When: 2 p.m. February 17 and 18, March 10, 18 and 24 and April 1; 7 p.m. March 18 and April 7; 7:30 p.m. April 5; 8 p.m. March 9, 10, 23 and 24, and April 6 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, group and rush tickets available Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org