nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
February 28, 2009
The Acting Company is currently in residence at the New Victory Theater for a one week stopover on their national tour of Shakespeare's Henry V. When I attended, the matinee audience was full and had a healthy mix of ages from septuagenarians down to pre-teens. This is a testament to the continued quality of the company's work and to the success of its mission to bring classic theater to a broad audience. Henry V, in fact, is part of the National Endowment for the Arts initiative entitled Shakespeare for a New Generation.
This production, co-produced with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, is directed by Davis McCallum in a straightforward approach that eschews any particular concept. In a way the set, designed by Neil Patel, is the main attraction: a massive two story bowed wall with sliding barn doors, hidden doors and climbing handholds, with multi-use steel set pieces on castors. Together with Michael Chybowski's lighting, the set allows McCallum the opportunity to create some impressive stage pictures. A number of dramatic moments are thus underscored with terrific effect. Not to give anything away, but one example is the siege at Harfleur, where "Once more unto the breach..." is particularly effective.
There are 40 characters in this production; one actor plays the title role and 11 other actors play all the rest. (The role of the Chorus is split up amongst the entire company.) Anita Yavich has designed clever costumes that are uniform-like, yet individual for each actor, serving as the base garment. Then, there are certain add-ons for each character. There is a very clever moment when the French court turns into the English court nearly instantaneously—with the help of Velcro, of course. Some of the cast are better at creating totally different characters than others, but yet, even when the difference is nuanced, we still seem able to keep track of who is who. Certainly Shakespeare helps us in this regard—he continually identifies scene participants in the text (no surprise since his company also acted multiple roles).
Matthew Amendt plays King Henry as a robust young king learning on the job. It is very believable that this Henry is also the young Prince Hal who was the compatriot in debauchery to Falstaff and friends while his dad [King Henry IV] was king. Amendt succeeds well in the quiet scenes, whether wooing Princess Katherine or discussing the nature of monarchy in disguise with his men. He does fall into the trap of using volume too much in some of the rousing scenes or scenes when he is angry. Too much speaking at high volume and the audience stops listening for a time. Fortunately such moments are few with this charismatic young actor.
Often, the actor playing the Welshman Fluellen gets special audience accolades. It is perhaps the most endearing role in the play and it requires an expert at dialects. William Sturdivant wears the mantle well and in the best tradition of the role. Another notable is Kelly Curran, a veteran of three seasons with the company, who plays an interesting double of the Boy and Princess Katherine—two very different characters expertly rendered. Two members of the company take on the daunting task of five roles a piece, Freddy Arsenault and Andy Grotelueschen. They both do very good work and deserve credit for Sybil-like differentiation of characters.
It is probably unfair not to mention the other actors, all of whom contribute to this very ensemble piece. So, embracing the fact that they all play other roles, give a rouse for Carie Kawa's Alice, Georgia Cohen's Hostess, Robert Michael McClure's Canterbury, Samuel Taylor's Nym, Sonny Valicenti's Gloucester, Rick Ford's French King, and Chris Thorn's Pistol.
On the whole, this production is an honest rendering of the Bard's work. What was missing for me is a director's perspective. Four hundred plus years of productions have run the gamut between jingoistic hawkishness and romantic pacifism. Here however, McCallum presents no point of view. Okay, so he lets the play stand on its on terms. And it certainly does, being a journey of a young man coming to terms with his responsibilities. But in this 21st century fraught with war waged on many fronts, both by Americans and by myriad other nations, it is such a great opportunity to say something about the current condition of humankind. So, the strength of this production is in the excellent ensemble. True to the tenets of The Acting Company, this is a bona fide company of actors rendering Henry V in a clear production with an engaging group of excellent Shakespeareans. It deserves to be seen for this alone.