A couple of nights back, I caught the performance of Henry V as part of the 20th anniversary season of the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival on the campus of California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California.
Now for long-time readers of the blog, you might remember that this is the group for which I did a presentation on Time in Romeo and Juliet a couple of months back for their 400th “deathiversary” extravaganza. At that point, I met with the two directors of this summer’s productions–Michael J. Arndt for this show, and Brett Elliott for the upcoming A Midsummer Night’s Dream–and won from them the opportunity to watch the shows be built from the ground up. I was able to see the first table-reads for each show as well as a tech rehearsal for this one. This obviously gives me some advantages as a reviewer (but more on that a little later).
First, a word on Arndt’s concept. This being an election year, Arndt has been fascinated by how the media treats the leading candidates for the greatest office in our country, and more importantly how different media outlets fail to hide (if they attempt it at all) their biases toward certain candidates. Shakespeare was no different. This play was the end of his two-tetralogy series of history plays, culminating in the portrait of this “star of England.” Most productions play up this angle, showing him as some kind of super-king, part saint, part Everyman, part military badass. However, Shakespeare’s full text is not so cut-and-dried.
This warts-and-all portrayal is the focus of Arndt’s production. We get the fifteenth century king, but we’re transported there via a completely modern Chorus, a History Channel hostess shot through the prism of a Fox News anchor. She brings us into the play, giving us our hero-king, but shows up at times as a ironic juxtaposition to what we’ve seen. The Chorus is always pro-Henry, but what we see Henry do is sometimes less than heroic: the most brutal reading of the speech to the governor of Harfleur that I’ve ever seen (complete with old men and women prisoners onstage who are paraded by Henry as props), the silent but explicit approval of Bardolph’s execution by garroting which happens immediately following onstage, and the killing of the French prisoners. This is no bright, shiny star of England. And yet, we also see his good side: his humor, his bravery, his charisma.
It’s a brilliant concept by Arndt, and well executed. Claire Kaplan absolutely kills it as the Chorus, making her appearances simply, gesturing and inflecting to make every statement ring true to a contemporary audience. Michael Faulkner’s Fluellen is a wonderful creation, bringing great comedy chops to his line readings, but unable to make that humor transcend the incredible cruelty he shows toward Pistol in their last meeting (both Welshmen are more ambivalent than one-note). Angela Gulner and Kavi Ladnier shine as Princess Katherine and her lady-in-waiting Alice. And as the Dauphin, Seta Wainopolo brings a wonderfully oversized ego and foppishness to the role.
If I’m making this sound more like an ensemble that a star-driven piece, that may be so. It is a more balanced production than many Henry Vs I’ve seen. That’s not to say, however, that we don’t have a solid Henry at the center of the play. At the table-read, I had my doubts about Ty Mayberry. He seemed too matinee-idol-ish, too charming, too slick. But somewhere in the rehearsal process, actor and director has roughened those smooth edges, giving us a more complex Henry. His reading of the “Once more unto the breach” speech is exciting and evocative, and his interplay with both Katherine and the audience makes that final courting scene (which can be a tough scene to pull off) fresh.
Does everything thing in this production work? No. A few of the performances bring down the overall level of the ensemble, and the fine music at times enters the scene too loudly, too abruptly (though this may have been more an effect of my seat location–with the space mic up high [along with the dialogue speakers], and the music speakers being lower and closer to the front, it may have simply been the case of me hearing the live vocal (not amplified) and the amplified music overpowering it).
The extended opening of the play, with Arndt welcoming patrons and discussing the Festival from the stage, and cast members warming up on the same stage, doesn’t quite achieve its purpose: to show us the artifice of theater, and to prepare us mentally for the Chorus. Having seen the tech rehearsal, I could see this…but for those in the audience who didn’t know the purpose, this opening seems more distracting than enlightening.
However, with so much working well–including some very exciting battle sequences, choreographed by Jason D. Rennie–there is simply too much to praise in this production to not recommend it highly.
There are only four more performances: tonight and next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. If you’re in the area, you really should check it out.