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Sunday, July 05, 2015

Piecing out Imperfections

IT’S ALMOST INSULTING to our received images of warfare, this Battle of Agincourt, with a handful of black-clad actors suffering slo-mo agonies while the stage is littered with drapes of red. Since scenes of actual carnage are now denied us by television news, we thrill to Hollywood’s relentless re-creations. This chamber-music version of battle highlighted only its emotional content–the uncomfortable part–and the subsequent actions of the politicians of the time.

David Joseph, Ryan Winkles, and Caroline Calkins.
Photo by John Dolan.
Because it’s the 15th century, the politicians are royalty, and Shakespeare’s enduring saga of Henry V shows us a youthful king facing both internal insurrection and war with France. He’s fresh from the playwright’s pair of Henry IVs, which portray him as a rakehell palling around with the dissolute Falstaff. As played by Ryan Winkles, in his 10th season with this company, the young king tempers his sense of duty with a sense of humanity. There’s enough ambiguity in the script to challenge the actor, as a comparison of filmed performances will show, but Winkles makes a good choice–particularly in this bare-bones version—to show us Henry’s emotional accessibility.

He still makes the most of the big speeches, which take on a more compelling flavor when they’re not uttered as Olivier-ish pieces of bombast, and he’s very at home in the wooing of French princess Catherine, played with steely coquettishness (and a convincing accent) by Caroline Calkins.

Like most of the others in this ensemble of eight, Calkins plays multiple roles, appearing also as The Boy, a youth who’s wiser and more sympathetic than his Eastcheap companions and whose death at the hands of the French is thus all the more poignant–also supported by skilled acting.

With nearly 40 characters to portray, the actors aren’t consistently successful. Although the text itself prepares us for the difficulty of the story’s intent–“. . . can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?”—the first half seems to rocket somewhat recklessly between affairs of the court and lower-class comedy, with the comedy so overplayed that the face-pulling creeps into the more serious scenes.

David Joseph’s portrayal of Nym, one of the tavern roughs, is appropriately broad, but he then gives us a Dauphin who also is something of a numbskull, which seems confusingly at odds with the character’s shrewd and scheming nature. That the Dauphin put me in mind of Andrew Cuomo couldn’t possibly have been part of the actor’s purpose.

There’s a more credible contrast between Jonathan Croy’s Pistol, again from the tavern, and King of France–but Croy is the kind of actor who thrives on such transformations, leaving a series of memorable characterizations in his wake.

Sarah Jeanette Taylor ups the multiple-character ante by also switching between genders with no loss of credibility as she makes her way through a half-dozen roles, and she’s also responsible for choreographing that aforementioned fight scene.

All of which carries on on an almost-bare stage dressed with five chairs, one of them a throne by virtue of the arms it sports. The chairs are re-angled or dressed with fabric to create a new setting; two of them are transformed into a bar or banquet table with the addition of a plank. Set designer Patrick Brennan shows the power of simplicity, and director Jenna Ware adds dramatic statements by the act of changing those settings, preparing us for the ritual of the court or the raucousness of the tavern by the way in which those chairs are wielded.

Adding to the first half’s roughness was the uncertainty of the physical comedy therein. I’m a great fan of such shenanigans, which may make me a too-severe critic of it, but tumbles and falls are a form of dance, and thrive on crispness of execution: Each move needs a beginning, a middle, and an end.

By the second half, however, all aspects of this production fell so skillfully in place that the action seemed to fly, reaching a height of excellence at the beginning of Act IV, when a disguised Henry persuades Pistol to expound about the King (with a few Welsh jokes thrown in). The dialogue was handled so transparently by Winkles and Croy that you could forget that you were watching an Important Work of Art and simply sit back and enjoy it.

Henry V
By William Shakespeare, directed by Jenna Ware
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 28

Metroland Magazine, 2 July 2015

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