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Henry V — Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival

l_675-137The more personal and intimate Matt Pfeiffer’s production of “Henry V” for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival is, the better it is.

Among Shakespeare’s history plays, “Henry V” always seems most to be a history lesson. Unless character is emphasized strongly, the play can become a pageant or collection of battle vignettes leavened a bit by the cowardice and practicality of King Henry’s friends from “Henry IV” and humanized by scenes that denote the nature of war and the tension of 15th century politics.

While “Henry V” contains two of Shakespeare’s most stirring speeches in which the king rallies his soldiers , his “band of brothers,” to battle, smaller, less rhetorical moments are the more engrossing in Pfeiffer’s staging, which benefits more from individual nuances than from epic size or outlook.

The big speeches rouse. Zack Robidas, as Henry, declaims passionately as he sends his brigades “once more into the breach” at Harfleur and unites them with the solemn significance of St. Crispin’s Day before the decisive battle at Agincourt. These passages resonate with Shakespeare’s poetic brilliance and Henry’s attitude of being one with his men Robidas reads them well, but does not seem to be appealing personally to his troops, those who must stiffen their sinews and become tigers, as much as inveighing them to general glory for Harry, England, and St. George.

During the exquisitely composed “into the breach” oration, Robidas is poised above his men and proclaims Henry’s lofty, descriptive sentiments into the PSF house. The speech has its effect, but it doesn’t seem intimate. It comes across more as rhetoric recited than as an invocation that will summon up blood and enhance the luster in the warriors’ eyes. In this sequence, Robidas makes no eye contact with Harry’s army. His diction is fine, and the meaning of Shakespeare’s words are felt, but there is no texture. The speech stands on its own as the beautiful piece of writing it is, but it doesn’t motivate or involve.

The more prosaic “St. Crispin’s Day” speech plays more personally and fraternally. While eschewing talk of death and emphasizing the honor of the wounds men will sustain and bear for life at Agincourt, Robidas has troops gathered around him and can look some in the eye.

Yet these two monumental passages are not the highlights of Pfeiffer’s staging. Its best moments come when people are speaking plainly to each other.

The single most effective moment comes just before Henry is about to address his men at Agincourt, cued by his cousin Westmoreland’s talk of death and need for more soldiers. It comes at one of the few times Shakespeare leaves the nobility of England and France behind and allows the everyday person to express himself. At PSF, it comes because of the intensity and sincerity of Dan Hodge playing an ordinary foot soldier, possible a conscript, Henry encounters as he walks among those about to fight in his name and Agincourt.

This scene, in which Henry wears a borrowed cloak to disguise the brightly emblemed doublet that would immediately identify him, is one of Shakespeare’s most inspired. It shows a king, Henry V, already known for his ability to get close to and be one with his people from when he was the rowdy Prince Hal in “Henry IV,” leaving behind the pomp and circumstance of his office, even on a critical day in his reign, to see and listen to the men he may be consigning to death and wounding when dawn comes that morning.

We see a contemplative, egalitarian Harry who walks to clear his head but yearns to know the feelings of his troops. He listens to a conversation here, watches men go about routine business there, then catches some critical remarks of a common soldier, Michael Williams, who sees disaster ahead of rather than duty or glory, and is not fond of the monarch who put him and his cohorts in this position. Henry confronts Williams and engages him in further conversation.

This scene always stands out as both a change of pace and for Shakespeare’s humanizing Harry in a way that has not been done previously. We see the king’s cunning, his resolve, and his bravery, but we don’t see the Hal we knew from previous plays or the king as a person who has the need to commune as a simple man.

At PSF, Hodge puts a charge in the scene with his honest, realistic approach to one man being frank with another he doesn’t know is actually his general. Hodge gives an intensity to Williams that is missing from much of Pfeiffer’s production which tends to work in broad strokes rather than in small touches.

Rather than “Henry V” unfolding efficiently and engagingly enough, Hodge, late in the game, elevates the drama to a new level. He makes you take particular notice to the scene with the king and Williams. He gives an edge to Williams’s voice. He is not a fawning courtier. He is a bitter soldier who will fight as bid but who doubts the competence of his leader and is unafraid to speak his mind, even to a stranger. Hodge plays the scene like a dedicated grumbler. His Williams spells out his attitude in no uncertain terms. He shows how convinced he is of his own point of view. He gives Henry something to think about.

Naturally, give the lines of the scene, we always see this character complaining about the king and military service to the king. It’s part of the show. Hodge makes it a riveting part. His intensity is such you can’t help but concentrate on what Williams is saying and the king’s reaction to it. Hodge gives his character a depth that is rare in PSF’s “Henry V.” He centers you on a specific moment that takes you away from the epic, expositional nature of most other scenes. PSF’s “Henry V” ceases, for five minutes, from being an admirably diverting overview to being something special and unique in its presentation.

The entire sequence leading to Henry’s encounter with Williams, one that ends in a challenge, is the strongest in Pfieffer’s production. Beginning from when Henry borrows the equalizing cloak from Greg Wood’s Sir Thomas Erpingham to the “St. Crispin’s” invocation, this “Henry V” acquires a majesty and power it otherwise lacks.

Other scenes away from active battlefields and courts also rank among the strongest at PSF.

NealBoxAnthony Lawton has a wonderful comic turn as Captain Fluellen, a flinty Welshman who gives his philosophy of war with native wit more associated with his candor than with an actual desire to be funny or entertain. William Zielinski has a fine moment when Pistol, a friend of Henry from his wilder days as Hal, decides he’s had enough of war and determines, while he is one piece, to leave France and head back to London and home.

The centerpiece of that home is the inn where Pistol drank many a merry toast with Hal, Bardolph, Nym, Mistress Quickly, and the famous Sir John Falstaff. The scene in which all of these sans Hal and Falstaff gather, plays particularly well. We are grieved when the death of Sir John (modelled after a knight the actually Henry V had burned at the stake) is announced as Zielinski, Carl N. Wallnau, Jacob Dresch, and Jane Ridley keep us interested in what they do and say and invite us to share their emotion at their friend’s passing.

At the French court, Dresch, playing the Dauphin, effectively kept from inheriting his father’s throne because of Henry’s victory at Agincourt, is marvelous as he looks at Henry and his English courtiers, with daggers in his eye and irrepressible scowl on his face. Dresch’s Dauphin makes no secret of his displeasure. It’s the right attitude for the occasion and foreshadows, perhaps unintentionally, the Dauphin may a force to be reckoned with as England attempts to rule France and the Hundred Years War thunders on.

Zack Robidas, like Pfeiffer’s production, is clear and serviceable without being grand. He is a likeable, leaderlike Henry who hints at all aspect of the king’s character but never takes hold as the star or focal figure of the production.

Robidas neatly shows Henry’s cleverness at dealing with traitors, letting them think he doesn’t know of their malice before springing a death sentence on them by a written commission that looks like orders for the coming battles. He does fine wooing Catherine de Valois, the daughter of the French king he is deposing, but there’s no ardor in his romance, only gallantry.

Robidas is always competent but never piercing. He doesn’t endow Henry with the majesty with which Carl N. Wallnau invests the French king. He doesn’t roil your blood giving his two monumental speeches. He doesn’t impress as a warrior or a victor.

His is a steadier, even-keeled, likeable approach that warrants no great objection but garners no great praise. (Unlike Robidas’s laudable turn in “Henry V’s” alternating play in repertory, “The Foreigner,” in which Robidas adds texture and personality to a character that could get by with being functionary.)

Cast members play a raft of roles. Greg Wood begins the proceeding as an instructive Chorus but has his best moments as the French messenger who constantly comes to Henry to negotiate the English king’s surrender and is constantly rebuffed, each time more vehemently for Henry. William Zielinski, Dan Hodge, and Anthony Lawton have been cited for the production-improving dash they give their characters. Carl N. Wallnau is stately and commanding as the French king and realistic as Bardolph. Jacob Dresch brings welcome petulance to this role as the Dauphin, especially in the resentment he shows towards Henry, and shows his usual spirit as Nym. Wayne S, Turney brings a note of cheer to the production as the Duke of Exeter, a man who always has a twinkle in his eye. Akeem Davis, an estimable Henry when he played the role for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre last fall, serves well as the Duke of Bedford. Marnie Schulenburg is a graceful Catherine, both is her bashful meeting with Henry and during her English lessons with Jane Ridley’s Alice.

I worry that I have made Pfeiffer’s production and Robidas’s performance sound dull or without merit. That would be a false impression. One of the hardest traits to express in writing is solid competence. Not being “special” is not meant to indicate not being “worthy” or even mediocre.

Robidas’s and Pfeiffer’s work both deserve more than that. This is a “Henry V” that engages but doesn’t grab. It gives an intelligent overview of a script that mostly depicts wars and complex politics meant to justify the wars. It is an honorable staging. It is plain, but not without gifts. It is straightforward but has moments that shine, such as Henry’s encounter with Michael Williams and Fluellen’s outburst. It tells a convoluted story while never boring or losing pace, It goes about its business efficiently and quietly. Lack of fanfare, even during Henry’s big speeches, does not mean lack of interest. The simplicity of Pfeiffer’s staging allows you to stay abreast of all that is being discussed and its consequences.

To say something is “good” seems tantamount to damning with slight praise. But “good” is a favorable grade, and praise is genuine if not overflowing.

PSF has had a five-for-five season. (The best of all, “Pericles,” is to be reviewed within a day.) Pfeiffer’s “Henry V” is part of that achievement. Take it for what you will, it does engage, is eminently watchable, is easy to follow, and never flags even though it rarely soars.

Bob Phillips’s set efficiently changes from a royak court to a battlefield or tavern with utilitarian ease. Sam Fleming’s costumes befit the Elizabethan period. Henry’s doublet. emblazoned with various coats of arms including the Welsh lion and the French fleur de lys, is especially distinctive and lovely. Alex Bechtel deftly introduced the sounds of war, while also writing some leavening music. One sequence with Dane McMichael on guitar, was especially fine. Thom Weaver’s lighting evokes place, conditions, and times of day.

“Henry V” plays through Sunday, August 2, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, performed in the Labuda Arts Center on the campus of DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, in Center Valley, Pa. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $51 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 610-282-WILL (610-282-9455) or by visiting www.pashakespeare.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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