BWW Review: Brave Spirits' HENRY THE FIFTH Rounds out their History Rep in Sobering, Moving Style
As the theatre community pauses, now is a good time to reflect on what we have accomplished, and what we can look forward to when our beloved performance spaces open up again. Productions have been postponed and cancelled - the cancellations hurt deeply-but the good news is that we will return, and so will our audiences.
There is one dedicated, hard-working company in particular whose work will hit the boards running: Brave Spirits, with their Shakespeare's Histories repertory, will return to The Lab at Convergence in Alexandria, with all four of this year's installments in full blossom.
Forget the Cherry Blossoms, folks, they'll be gone before you know it. The Histories rep, cultivated, rested and ready, will be where it's at.
Their latest entry, "Henry the Fifth," as with all the other plays in Brave Spirits' cycle, is full of surprises and fresh interpretations. With only a few preview performances under their belt, it is clear that the History Repertory will wrap up a few loose ends, while pointing towards contentions and bloodshed to come.
Director Charlene V. Smith views this, one of Shakespeare's most popular history plays, with fresh eyes, and brings a sober understanding of the historical reality behind the shining pentameter veneer. There is room for humor and romance, but Smith wisely avoids the "happily ever after" BS of most productions. In doing so, she not only honors the history, and Shakespeare's genius, she also gives a nod towards the chaos to come when Brave Spirits takes up the "Henry the Sixth" cycle next year.
Brendan Edward Kennedy, who has already proven himself twice over in the "Henry the Fourth" plays, comes into his own as the title monarch. Determined, cold-blooded but armed with mellifluous singing voice, Kennedy gives us the subtlety of a true monarch, mingled with a taste for cons and tricks. Shakespeare makes a point of showing us how the deviousness which once aided Henry against Falstaff & Co. can be deployed skillfully, and in earnest, against the enemies in his midst. When his old drinking pal Bardolph is hung for theft, Kennedy's Henry doesn't flinch or evince anything more than the usual, officious disdain for crime.
Supporting Kennedy's efforts is Annette Mooney, who as Duchess of Exeter is in full possession of her powers. Brianna Goode is as forceful in her turn as Montjoy the Herald as she is witty and disarming in the role of Peto, the hapless boy who must accompany Henry's boyhood drinking pals Pistol, Bardolph and Nim to battle.
Ian Blackwell Rogers, meanwhile, has some brilliantly comic turns, first as the Archbishop of Canterbury-his rendition of the "Salic Law" speech, one of the most tedious and self-serving monologues of all time, is enlivened by maps and family trees and Rogers' inimitable comic delivery. His later appearance as the Welsh captain Fluellen is a study in shameless scene-stealing, as he undermines Henry V's authority and majesty at every opportunity.
Perhaps the most memorable scene here, and truly haunting, is the uneasy courtship between Henry V and Princess Katherine de Valois. Nicole Ruthmarie, a statuesque Katherine and regal in her own right, stunningly reminds us the position of noblewomen in her time. Born to be a pawn in France's political games, her powerlessness in the face of Henry's advances is conveyed through the fear in her eyes, which are truly riveting.
Gone is the charm of a bilingual romance, which we have seen so often before. Instead, we are reminded that Katherine had no choice but to submit to whatever Henry desired. And the closing number, sung by the entire company, Nancy Kerr's "The Shores of Hispaniola," adds an extra dimension to the story, because it recalls the first English slaving vessel, and the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in England in the 1560's. The ending of this "Henry the Fifth" is not triumphal, but one that reflects more on the status of the vanquished-Katherine especially.
I can only hope that audiences will have the opportunity to see the Brave Spirits' first repertory and soon. In the meantime, stay at home, avoid becoming unwitting vectors spreading COVID-19 to our friends and neighbors, and we will see each other again soon.
Production Photo: Brendan Edward Kennedy (center) as Henry V; with (from L to R) Michael Bannigan Jr. as Bedford, Jillian Riti as Westmoreland, Joshua Williams as the Bishop of Ely, Ian Blackwell Rogers as the Archbishop of Canterbury, Annette Mooney as Exeter, and Gary DuBreuil as Gloucester. Photo by Claire Kimball.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Performances of Henry the Fifth will resume in at the end of March or early April (fingers crossed!). It will run in repertory, Richard the Second, Henry the Fourth, Part 1, and Henry the Fourth, Part 2 at the The Lab at Convergence, 1819 Quaker Lane, Alexandria VA.