BWW Review: Orlando Shakespeare Goes unto the Breach with Masterful HENRY V
One of the great benefits of having a professional Shakespeare company in town is that they are able to invest in productions of some of the Bard's works that don't often get produced at traditional theatres. While Orlando Shakespeare certainly produces great plays not found in the First Folio, the fact that they are able to bring performances of shows like TITUS ANDRONICUS, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, and PERICLES to the stage is a tremendous boon for Central Florida theatre fans. Productions of HAMLET, ROMEO AND JULIET, the Scottish Play, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM will never go out of style, but it is truly special when you are able to attend an artistically satisfying production of one of Shakespeare's lesser seen works; like the masterful HENRY V, running through March 22nd at Orlando Shakespeare.
One of Shakespeare's most popular Histories, HENRY V, tells the story of England's young King Henry, as he attempts to claim the throne of France, through some rather complicated lineal logic. The King leads his undermanned army across the English Channel to take on the mighty French forces. One of this show's strengths is that it so completely tells the story of the incursion. Of course we see how the campaign impacts Harry and the nobility, but we also see the effects on the common English soldiers in service of their king, as well as how the French royalty deal with the invasion.
What is remarkable about this production is that a company of just eight actors covers over 40 roles; flawlessly bouncing between costumes and accents. While at times that means that the proceedings have a certain Monty Python feel to them, the precision of the cast and direction is enthralling. Despite being a History Play, Shakespeare takes ample opportunity to add humor to the show, and director Jim Helsinger takes full advantage of that fact. Though the portrayals of the French seem to lean a little too heavily on modern stereotypes, and the anachronistic gimmick used to get through some tedious exposition is a little too over-the-top, the cast perfectly balances the seriousness of battle with the more light-hearted moments. John P. Keller as Harry and Sarah Caroline Billings as French Princess Katherine also bring a sweet, unexpected romance to the second act.
As both King Henry and the French Dauphin, Keller is incredibly compelling. He possesses the dramatic ability to make 400-year-old dialogue seem fresh and modern, while also imbuing Harry with the charisma necessary to convince soldiers to run head first towards almost certain death.
For anyone familiar with HENRY V, there is no doubt that the iconic St. Crispin's Day Speech is one of Shakespeare's most stirring monologues; and Keller does not fail to deliver. His rousing version brought to life the contagious passion and conviction that the king imparts onto his men. Though the speech is short, the goosebumps it gave me lasted long into the next scene.
The ensemble nature of this production makes it difficult to single out one actor from the cast, as they all worked incredibly well as one cohesive unit. Kate Ingram was especially regal as the French King. Richard B. Watson opened the show with a humorous take on the play's framing device, and carried that levity throughout the show as Welsh soldier Fluellen. Billings seamlessly floats from being a pageboy to a herald to Katherine, adding a definitive humanity to each. In addition, Brad DePlanche, Stephen Paul Johnson, Geoffrey Kent, and Stephen Lima bring heart, humor, and strength to this thoroughly professional ensemble.
As equally impressive as the work the cast does on the stage, is the stage itself. Bob Phillips' gorgeous all wood stage brings to mind the original Globe. The scenic design makes full use of the limited space by incorporating a number of clever doors, which also allow Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen Video and Video/Projection Designer Andrew Mulkey additional canvases on which to work. Also, Britt Sandusky's sound design and Lisa Zinni's costume design add subtle, but invaluable texture to the production.
One final touch that cemented the uniquely creative approach to the show was the theatrical take on the fight scenes, directed by Kent. While I won't spoil the surprise that Kent and Helsinger created for the decisive Battle of Agincourt, I will say that it is phenomenally evocative, and perfectly conveys the ebbs and flows of battle. The only drawback to this scene is that I wish there was more of it.
Whether or not you are a Shakespearean historian, this is a theatrical event that you will not want to miss. If nothing else, hearing an actor as talented as Keller deliver the words, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," is reason enough to see Orlando Shakespeare's production of HENRY V. To purchase your tickets, visit Orlando Shakes' website or call 407-447-1700. The show runs through March 22nd.
Did you go into the breach with King Harry? Did the St. Crispin's Day Speech move you as it did me? Let me know in the comments below, or by "Liking" and following BWW Orlando on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below. You can also chat with me about the show on Twitter @BWWMatt.
1) Stephen Lima and John P. Keller | Tony Firriolo, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre
2) Stephen Paul Johnson and Kate Ingram | Tony Firriolo, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre
3) Stephen Lima, John P. Keller, and Geoffrey Kent | Tony Firriolo, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre