BWW Reviews: HENRY V Doesn't Quite Conquer
Shakespeare is a tough nut to crack. A live production has to achieve a swift coherence for the audience that comes through crispy portrayed characters who clearly and creatively elucidate the text through action and speech that rises above mere sing-songy recitation.
Conversely, many purists of late have come to look upon excess imagination and conspicuously overt stagings as slurrings of some of history's greatest written work.
It's a tricky balance to achieve. Kentucky Shakespeare makes a go of it this summer in its history offering with a noble, if uneven, go at "Henry V."
Overseeing the historical epic is Amy Attaway, co-artistic director of Theatre . Attaway takes a step outside her comfort zone of producing regional premieres of recent and relevant works to take up a classic in the open air amphitheater of Central Park.
Attaway plays up the self-conscious theatricality running through the play - Shakespeare repeatedly implores the audience to use their imaginations for the sweeping battles and warhorses - by seating the cast on the outskirts of the stage to observe the action when they're not a part of it. It's a nice touch to see them slip in and out of character and serve as stagehands and more when called for.
Donna Lawrence-Downs outfits the cast smartly and sparingly in hints of period pieces such as doublets and armor over more basic garments. The musically able cast members performer an acoustic folk score composed by Scott Anthony that is sweet and lyrical where appropriate and pounding with the heartbeat of war as conflict approaches.
The dressing is ably realized, but the meat of the play is not always as hearty. Some scenes seem overly directed, made too much of for the sake of a modern comment here and there, while others seem like they need more attention. Henry's cool reaction to receiving the Dauphin's gift of a cask of tennis balls - juggling them - comes off as cutesy, diminishes the force of the insult and sets the stakes low for the history-altering war that is to come (and calls into question the young king's juggling judgment, consider that some interpret the "tennis balls" as bull testicles. More on the oddities of King Henry shortly).
Alternately, there are many scenes that are beautifully realized. The tutelage of Princess Catherine, Henry's potential prize should he win the French throne, by her gentlewoman is wonderfully charming as played by Megan Massie and Abigail Bailey Maupin. With barely more than five words of English spoken, their characters are made clear and their relationship is a treat to behold.
As Henry, Matt Lytle could show more degrees in his arc from boy king to conquering force. Very little differentiates the great speeches of Henry - from "Once more into the breech" to the all-important St. Crispin's Day speech - other than their ever-increasing volume. An unfortunate 20-minute rain delay actually gave Lytle a few moments to ground and focus in on his monologue about the weight of his lonely position.
Unfortunately, once the battle is won and the dead tallied, Lytle's Henry is directed off the rails when he finally arrives to court Princess Cate. Lytle seems to have been instructed to romance every corner of the stage, as opposed to the object of his affection. He squeaks and quivers like a teenager in a Disney sitcom. One wishes for the conquering hero and his fully-earned gravitas and charm to excuse this poor boy who seems to have time-traveled from some adolescent pre-"Henry IV" prologue.
Still, Attaway surrounds Henry with a stalwart cast of noblemen, led by the wise and stand-in father figure Exeter, played very well by Dathan Hooper. Jeremy Sapp's fierce eyes and athletic stature make him a powerful Gloucester, even with scant lines. Tony Milder is a petulant loudmouthed Dauphin, and wonderfully so. He plays up the butt of Shakespeare's jokes expertly. As Captain Fluellen, Greg Maupin delivers a masterful performance in accent, diction, meaning and humor with every line he alternately spits and spills forth. Kyle Ware finds great dimensions in the swaggering-yet-cowardly Pistol.
Of particular anticipatory relish any time "Henry V" is staged are the battle scenes, and J. Barrett Cooper's intense choreography is thrilling. The rain forced the actors to go at half-pace; if that's the case, then full speed must be terrifying.
Also worthy of a happy note is the new sound system. For those unaware, for the first time, Kentucky Shakespeare is equipping each and every actor with an individual microphone, and the result is the chance to relish every syllable of The Bard's work, unencumbered by airplane engines and dead spaces - a wise investment.
It is a welcome treat to see Kentucky Shakespeare thriving again under local leadership with local talent. "Henry V" is certainly an enjoyable evening of theater. With a bit more excavation of the story and consistency from beginning to end, it might be one remembered by we few, we happy few, who had the chance to witness it.