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Henry V

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

There's little point in questioning the knack that great playwrights have for staging their work with the very dialogue of which the play consists. And, whether it was necessity or a chosen dramatic device, William Shakespeare almost always employed this technique brilliantly.

Take, for example, the poetic opening to Henry V, in which the Chorus challenges the audience to use their imagination to create the battlefields and larger-than-life players and props necessary for presenting the story of a great war between France and England. The story needs what no theatre can possibly contain, so why not rely on the infinite capacities of the human imagination?

Had David Fuller taken the cue for his staging of the new Jean Cocteau Repertory production of Henry V from these words, he almost certainly would have been better off. The greatest casualty of the Hundred Years War as presented here is the story Shakespeare wrote.

Fuller has reset the play during the Vietnam War, but despite lots of screaming, recorded explosions, camouflaged costumes (by Susan Soetaert), flashing lights (by Giles Hogya), and onstage violence, the war never once seems real - there's never much of anything at stake, and the more the "action" is piled on, the duller the show seems to be.

This could be due, in part, to Fuller's reconception of the opening monologue mentioned earlier. It's now an exhortation to the audience on the dangers of war, given on the battlefield to a fallen soldier by Harris Berlinsky, playing the Chorus (as well as the King of France later). He articulates and enunciates every word with razor sharp precision while occasionally sacrificing the meaning, as performers in Shakespeare plays are frequently wont to do.

We're drawn into the battlefield right away thanks to Mr. Hogya's adaptable and atmospheric set, a collection of tall bamboo poles and curtain-like fans that can divide the stage into any number of configurations. King Henry V (Jason Crowl), newly ascended to the throne, is eager to display his power and invade France, though with a small contingent of forces almost guaranteed to lose to the thousands of French soldiers they are to battle against.

The story of the English attack and the eventual resolution of the conflict is cleverly designed, with enough twists of plot to keep an audience already familiar with the story riveted to their seats to see what happens next. But Henry V, at the center of nearly every event, has to propel the action forward, so a dynamic performer is required. Fuller has not found one in Crowl. Crowl plays three scenes well: the early moments of Henry's indecision, his final scene, winning the heart of the French princess, and his best scene at his least kingly occurs when he dons common attire to speak with his troops about the upcoming battle. Shakespeare's lengthy speeches for Henry V rallying his troops should be inspiring. Here, they - like most of his other scenes - barely register.

But then, little in this overly loud and frequently boring production does. It's particularly telling that the most exciting and dramatically satisfying scene is the one in the show that's entirely in French. The French princess, Katherine, played by Rebecca Robinson, and her attendant Alice (Marlene May) merely stand alone on the stage, speaking plainly, communicating their ideas to each other and the audience.

The moment works so well here, it's hard not to wish Fuller had found a way to make the English scenes in this Henry V work even half as well.

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Jean Cocteau Repertory
Shakespeare's Henry V
(in repertory with The Importance of Being Earnest)
Through January 5
Jean Cocteau Repertory, 330 Bowery at Bond Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 677-0060