BWW Reviews: Folger Theatre's HENRY V is Timely and Compelling

By: Jan. 30, 2013

Folger Theatre has long been a mainstay in the ever-growing DC theatre scene. Although many companies in the area 'do' Shakespeare - Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Synetic Theater, and of course the almighty Shakespeare Theatre Company come to mind - I often find that many of them 'do it' with a twist, albeit with varying results - some positive, and some I've tried to block from my memory. Folger's current production of the well-known Henry V is certainly not one of the most innovative or novel Shakespeare productions I have seen in town, but you know what? It really is ok. In fact, it's very much ok. Put quite simply, Robert Richmond's presentation of the epic war play is one to see. It's a solid example of the magic that can happen when solid acting, direction, and production values - particularly those that don't detract from the telling of the story - make an already strong play that much more compelling.

Perhaps we've all seen at least one film adaptation of this final installment of Shakespeare's tetralogy, if not the play itself, so I don't need to completely rehash the plot other than to say that this is very much a story of a leader learning to be not only a leader but a grown-up, and understanding the primary and secondary consequences of the decisions one chooses to make. As a scene setter, England is experiencing political upheaval and Henry V (played here by Zach Appelman) has assumed the throne. He's a young man, but one with ample ambition. Determined to claim territory that currently belongs to France, he's met with some resistance from French leaders, which leads to an inter-state war and England's invasion of French territory. The play considers the impact of this decision to go to war on Henry as a leader and as a person, the people of England (including those which have existing ties to the king), and military forces on both sides and depicts the now noteworthy Battle of Agincourt and its aftermath. The physical and psychological impacts of power struggles resulting in war are examined with vivid and evocative language and powerful imagery.

Folger's production stays true to the text of the play and Richmond does well to bring out the comedic moments as well as the dramatic tensions found within it. He's aided by a strong ensemble cast, which has no weak links and demonstrates a solid understanding of how to work together to tell the story. That being said, there are a few cast members that deserve specific mention.

It's plausible to suggest that even though the play is very strong, a production of it would fall extremely flat (and perhaps be a bit tedious) if the lead actor charged with playing the titular character was not up to the task. To be sure, that's definitely not the case here. Appelman fully embodies the tormented king andk, through every ounce of his being, shares his struggles and ambitions with the audience without bringing them out of the moment. He's able to realistically display a range of emotions in scenes that range from romantic to the violent while never losing sight of the characteristics that make Henry V, Henry V.

Playing multiple roles (Katherine of France/Boy) Katie deBuys shows her versatility as an actress and remarkable chemistry with whomever shares her scenes, including Appelman. Equally able to handle comedy and intense drama, she's one to watch. Richard Sheridan Willis serves in a narrator (chorus) role quite well and also proves to be adept at handling multiple characters. He's a solid force to hold the production together, narrating what's happening and discussing the implications at points, but never doing so in a way that prohibits the audience members from fully experiencing and internalizing the story themselves.

The production elements are also stellar. Tony Cisek's multi-functional scenic design, consisting of multiple platforms and moving planks and levers, has a rustic feel to it and is useful in not only staging the various confrontations (ranging from political debates and executions to full-blown war), but also at the same time highlighting several themes present in the play, including the idea that one decision can result in multiple shifts, consequences (whether intended or not), and changes. While minimal, Casey Dean Kaleba's fight direction, Andrew F. Griffin's lighting design, and Michael Rasbury's sound design further establish the setting with the sights and sound of war and political and social upheaval. The sound and lighting used during the battle scenes are particularly effective without being too overwhelming. Mariah Hale's intricate, ornate, and period-specific colorful costumes also are solid contributions to the production. The inclusion of Jessica Witchger, an omnipresent musician on the fiddle and harp, is one of the more innovative elements of the production. The use of music (played capably by the easy-to-watch Witchger) is a good one. Although it's not a necessary component, and it's hard to explicitly point to the purpose it serves, it does add further ambience.

Overall, this show is highly recommended. Folger doesn't employ gimmicks, but does justice to the material at a time when state governments across our globe are struggling with territorial disputes, the realities of political leadership, and the forces of socio-political change not unlike the ones presented in this play.

Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including an intermission.

Henry V plays at the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library - 201 East Capitol Street, SE in Washington, DC - through March 3, 2013. For tickets, call 202-544-7077 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman.