Henry V | The Acting Company/Guthrie Theatre

play_henry.jpgAs every Shakespeare aficionado knows, the playwright wrote at and for the pleasure of the Monarch, so England couldn’t possibly be wrong.







presented by The Edison Theatre Ovations Series

The late, esteemed John Houseman was one of the co-founders of The Acting Company in 1972 (with Margot Harley, who is its Producing Artistic Director today). Its mission is, among other goals, to give promising young actors a chance to develop their skills, working with challenging material while touring the country, bringing theater to the masses, along with master classes and short dramatizations for school children. It has an impressive list of alumni, among them Robin Williams (a member of its Board of Directors) who once did a hilarious comedy routine about the experience, including Houseman’s valedictory to the students delivered in a dead-on imitation of Houseman’s plummy tones which provided the voiceovers for many a commercial: "The thea-tuh wants you, the thea-tuh needs you; I am leaving to sell Volvos."

Houseman may have sold out, but The Acting Company (here in collaboration with Guthrie Theatre) most assuredly has not. They spent the weekend of February 13 and 14 based at the Edison Theatre presenting Shakespeare’s Henry V on Friday and The Spy (by James Fenimore Cooper) on Saturday. Sandwiched in were performances for a local school and a master class in "speaking Shakespeare." And "Shakespeare" is a language these young players speak with the fluency of a Gielgud (without the prissiness) or an Olivier (without the self-importance). The best comparison is to Kenneth Branagh who, perhaps not coincidentally, directed and starred in an excellent film of Henry V when he was only 28.

Here, Matthew Amendt essays the man who would be king, but on the whole, would rather not. He captures "Harry’s" insecurities and fears, as well as his eloquence, bravado and ruthlessness. He is the son of a powerful father, Henry Plantagenet (Henry IV), who wrested power from Richard III, the last of the Yorks at Bosworth Field. One of IV’s biggest concerns was the behavior of V who, then known as "Hal," prolonged his adolescence by drinking and carousing with the lower elements of society and refusing to take on adult responsibilities. But when he does step up, he becomes determined to outdo his father. He renounces his old friends (shown in a striking tableau on a catwalk above him) when he condemns one to death. His closest intimate was Falstaff who dies offstage, in part, it is said, because of a broken heart over Hal’s desertion.

So when Hal becomes Henry, he also decides to start a war to "take back" France. He has his priests manipulate ancient Salic Law to demonstrate that France has belonged to England all along, so Henry uses that as justifying an attack on a country which is not bothering England. He’s really angry about a personal slight by the Dauphin (whom he jokingly calls the "Dolphin"). Not everyone agrees that taking France is necessary, but Henry musters his army and off they go on a poorly conceived campaign. Now is the time when W, I mean V, finds himself truly up against it. But unlike our most recent political prince, he truly does manage to accomplish the mission. He seizes France for England after a bloody, one-day battle in which thousands of French are lost but only 25 English, despite the army’s weakened state. But buoyed on the young King’s eloquence, they fight as if God is on their side, which, of course, He is—because they’re English, as is God.

As every Shakespeare aficionado knows, the playwright wrote at and for the pleasure of the Monarch, so England couldn’t possibly be wrong. Also, it is necessary to reinforce the idea of the Divine Right of Kings. With those compromises in mind, Henry V remains a jolly good show. And it is adaptable to any historical time, as demonstrated by its two most famous film versions, as well as the Bush 41 and 43 analogy proposed above. Laurence Olivier used Henry to drum up English support for what became World War II. His was a dashing warrior, going into battle to do the right as God sees the right, and in dazzling primary colors. Branagh’s Henry was darker, more brooding and greedy, a sort of Elizabethan Gordon Gekko, determined to tax the Church and use the coffers of France to help finance his own goals. This portrayal befit Branagh’s own milieu, the late 1980s.

This depiction’s set is inspired by the "wooden O" mentioned in the Prologue. It is a semicircular two-story wall which opens at various places for the actors to enter and exit and gives them places from which to speak. Director Davis McCallum keeps the cast moving so quickly that they change from English to French and back again, often before our eyes. The ingenious, attractive costumes in shades of brown, gray and silver need only a robe, sash or hat to define a character’s status and nationality. Neil Patel and Anita Yavich get set and costume credits. The evocative light and sound designs are the creations of Michael Chybowski and Scott Edwards.

Amendt is the only one who has a single part. The rest play up to five characters, all of them well defined. I do find one Welsh accent debatable, despite the program’s crediting two dialect coaches, but the character, Fluellen, is otherwise played to good humorous effect. And it’s possible that "Elizabethan Welsh" sounded like that. Various dialects are used, but most of the cast, including Amendt, speaks standard American English. The other players are Freddy Arsenault, Carie Kawa, William Sturdivant, Georgia Cohen, Robert Michael McClure, Kelley Curran, Samuel Taylor, Sonny Valicenti, Rich Ford, Chris Thron and Andy Gratelueschen.

After the drama of the battle, Act V is usually too quick a turnaround as Henry is in negotiations at the French court. He woos Princess Katherine (Curran) when she has no English and he little French, but the scene is so charming we hardly notice how ill fitted it is to what has gone before. Overall, The Acting Company gave us an excellent evening of Shakespeare, and we thank them for it.

Henry V played one night only, but watch for this troupe to return to St. Louis. I hope it is soon. | Andrea Braun

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