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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Henry V — Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre

untitled (129)Aaron Cromie specializes in giving plays kinetic motion. His productions always brim with life and, when possible, are set in an alternative time and place them offsets themes and often adds perspective and clarity to a piece.

For “Henry V” at Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, Cromie moves The Bard’s play about the one king between Edward III and Henry VIII that is presented in a totally admirable light to a high school classroom, where the teenagers , in uniforms of various stages of crispness, delight in gossiping, throwing paper airplanes, or mildly taunting one another. Silently or inaudibly, as Cromie carries out his concept without adding one jot of text.

The production has already begun one the audience enters. Sam Sherburne, cast as the Prologue, or Chorus, who will wish for a muse of fire and implore that imagination fill the compact stage with battlefields, soldiers, palaces, and kings, doubles as a teacher who has prepared scripts so his English cast can perform “Henry V.”

The blackboard of the teacher’s classroom lists themes and scenes in Shakespeare’s play. Once the class arrives, Sherburne practically conducts his charges in “Henry.” Confined to hand signals and facial expressions, so as not to add lines to Shakespeare’s, Sherburne inventively inveighs quiet, enthusiasm, seriousness, jubilation, conflict, and other moods and emotions included in Shakespeare’s work. The actor revels in his task and comes across as a creative and dedicated professor who knows how to bring a literary work to theatrical life. Sherburne, as the teacher, is the one who unleashes the paper airplanes and rolled up paper representing rocks.

Cromie plays out this classroom scenario by having Sherburne hand out the various parts to “Henry,” the most eager student being generally ignored, the most reluctant student, the one with his head down and making no eye contact with Sherburne, being chosen as the lead. The school setting also comes into play when soldiers gear up for war, and the students arm themselves with physical education equipment, wearing football and hockey helmets and toting tennis racquets, baseball bats, and hockey sticks as weapons.

In starting the play, Sherburne takes an instructor’s tone for the “muse of fire” speech. He reads it dynamically and for clarity, looking around the room and making sure each of his pupils are paying attention and gleaning what Shakespeare’s Chorus desires. It’s a storytelling approach, and it works perfectly, as we understand one of the tenets of the theater, that a bare or sparse space must represent the grand and expansive and that “Henry V” tells one of the grandest and most expansive legends of all.

“Henry V” is among the most lauded and loved of Shakespeare’s history plays, Laurence Olivier’s film version, released in Britain in 1945, celebrated and reinforced the power of British commitment to take heart and vanquish a larger and equally determined foe. The movie was a cathartic rally cry that announced that England’s soldiers indeed went once more into the breach, prevailed for country, king, and St. George, and provided proud memories that people who participated in World War II would tell their grandchildren, perhaps on the anniversary of great battles, like Henry’s on St. Crispin’s Day at Agincourt or  by the Allied troops at Normandy on June 6, 1944. “Henry V” celebrates brotherhood and teamwork among soldiers. It celebrates victory, and it sheds light on a leader who had the common touch, who walked among his troops, took in what they had to say, and became an inspiration for his valor and the regard he engendered in his army and in his people.

Henry V, by Shakespeare’s account, was the only king who enjoyed total unity among his realm’s nobles and did not have to fight wars to maintain his position as head of England. His father usurped a throne and was always needing to combat rebels. His son’s kingship would be challenged by the bloody War of the Roses, but Harry’s, or Hal’s, would not be so plagued. His adversary would be France, to whose throne Henry believed he also had a right via a complex French order of succession governed by Salic Law, and it is against an insulting French king, Charles VI, that Henry will unleash his attack.

“Henry V” is much about war and policy. Unlike others, I find it less engaging than “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” or “Richard III.” Unless, of course, it’s set apart by the element I think makes “Henry V” special, the admiring look at a man who embodies the best in leadership, the ideal king who doesn’t attract jealousy and uprising as his father, who wrenched the crown from a reigning ruler, did, and who doesn’t excite the enmity of his son, whose policies will lead to disastrous division among England’s nobility and invite another claimant to the throne to challenge Henry VI for it.

Cromie and his cast touch on this human element, particularly in the scenes where Henry meets, sometimes by surprise, with his soldiers and in which he woos the French princess, Katherine, to be his queen. More often, they bring vitality to the battles and show how the strategy and will to win them against crushing odds came about.

Energy is the hallmark of Cromie’s production. His young actors provide relentless vitality. The class Sherburne teaches is motivated by their roles and wants to assay them in attention-getting ways. To Cromie’s and his cast’s credit, no actor goes too far in making his or present known. Instead, you see a cadre of performers keen to show his or her characters at their best and to make a mark on the proceedings.

The vivacity of the production carries it. It makes you attentive and sharp to listen to Sherburne’s introductions and the various debates Henry and his counseling nobles have. It also makes plain the position of France, that regards itself  as sovereign and not to be ruled by a King of England. One of the reasons it’s important to stress Henry’s personable and beloved nature as king, and to make the battle scenes and their preparations compelling is, by today’s, rather than by historical, standards, Henry’s drive into France seems specious. He is cast as the invader and marauder, the one who is taking, against the French will, something that might be his by legal right, but not necessarily by moral imperative.

History, of course, prevails, as does Shakespeare’s attitude towards and regard for Henry. We share that regard, and Shakespeare, along with Cromie’s company, make us happy Henry is victorious even while, as people of the 21st century, we wonder why he proceeds with his French campaign.

As I’ve said, Cromie and his actors make that campaign exciting. You listen carefully as Sherburne’s teacher sets each scene. You want to pay full attention to every argument presented to Henry, none of which are against the fighting in France but worry about the English chances against so vast and well-entrenched an enemy force. Through these discussions and debates, you see the statesmanship Shakespeare is lauding and note Henry as a leader who inspires allegiance and who wins his nobles’ , his army’s, and his subjects’ hearts.

Akeem Davis, who looks more everyday lumpen than royal while he’s slumped down at his desk in his wrinkled school uniform, converts quickly into a commanding Henry. Davis knows how to give his adversaries shrewd and beseeching looks that he follows with diplomatic language than often turns their opposition to support. He is excellent in scenes in which he tests the loyalty of some of his alleged followers by showing a sly wariness and never tipping his hand that he is asking men to incriminate themselves. He is fierce in fight scenes and shows he, though the king, can hold his own in any battle, whether it be with sword or by hand-to-hand combat.

Though always keeping in mind he is a student reading Shakespeare’s lines, Davis puts heft into them. His “once more into the breach” speech is remarkable for being less of a rallying cry than a huddle of sorts in which Henry brings all close to him and passionately, but intimately, imparts the importance of the mission and how much it means to him and England. The approach is quite effective, suiting the speech and fitting nicely into Cromie’s concept.

Cromie, with Davis and others, makes “Henry V” engaging. I felt its immediacy and got into the battle scenes more fully than I usually do.

“Henry V” has several instances of comic relief, as Shakespeare inculcates three of the rogues Henry sported around with during his wilder days as Prince Hal, who liked to haunt taverns and have adventures before getting to the serious business of government. Scenes with Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol offset Henry’s battle plans while showing what his character once was like. Johnny Smith, Richard Chan, and especially Jenna Kuerzi, are particularly entertaining as this trio.  Smith and Chan are all bravado, while Kuerzi, as the candid, cowardly, and more inebriated Nym, admits he would rather be at Mistress Quickly’s gaming and consuming sack that on a French battlefield where he can get killed.

One of the reasons Shakespeare includes Hal’s past cronies is to be able to talk about one of the most beloved characters to his Elizabethan audience, Sir John Falstaff.  In “Henry V,” Falstaff dies. Cromie’s production handles this circumstance in a matter-of-fact manner that almost dismisses it. That choice works within this particular production, but I missed having a moment of sentiment for a character who provides so much joy in the “Henry IV” plays.

Smith, Chan, and Kuerzi each have several opportunities to make impressions as other characters. Smith does well in conveying smugness and undeserved confidence as  the Dauphin. Chan’s Westmoreland prompts the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. Kuerzi makes her presence welcome in a variety of roles. In addition to playing his parts well, Chan shows a schoolboy’s zeal at participating in Sherburne’s classroom exercise.

Ife Foy is delectable as the courtier who attempts to instruct Ama Bollinger’s Princess Katherine in English. Bollinger is, as usual, irrepressible and does wonderfully as the demure Katherine while using her native French accent to good accord as Montjoy, the French emissary whose messages from King Charles always have the effect of insulting Henry and motivating him to invade France.

Jahzeer Terrell does a fine job as the governor of Harfleur who originally rejects Henry’s occupation of his territory but is brought to reason by the king. Terrell also has some strong fight scenes with Davis.

Lizzie Spellman is a merry Mistress Quickly and a resistant Charles VI who believes to the end his forces will prevail from sheer numbers and French loyalty.

Dirk Durossette’s classroom is complete with bulletin boards about current events and other subjects. He gives Cromie room for various movements of desks and people while creating the background that makes the schoolroom concept so effective.

The performance of “Henry V” I saw was a morning show attended by students from two different schools. The students ranged from about age 10 to age 16, and I was impressed with how well-behaved, attentive, and willing to talk about “Henry” they were. The only dismaying moment came when the audience rose to life and laughed en masse when two of the actors broke into a fist fight. The delight in the outburst of combat was telling.

“Henry V” runs through Sunday, November 16, at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $35 to $20 and can be obtained by calling 215-496-9722 by day or 215-571-4413 in the evening or by visiting www.phillyshakespeare.org.

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