Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Pigs Eye's plans a blockbuster Henry V
Tim Perfect, associate director of Pigs Eye Theatre, saw Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V when he was 16, and he sat pinned to the edge of his seat, as though he were watching a guy-action flick.
It was the first Shakespeare movie I saw," he said, "and from that time on, it's been my favorite Shakespeare play. It translates to being like the best summer blockbuster films."
Henry V follows on from Shakespeare's Henry IV, in which Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, is a dissolute youth who likes nothing better than to hang out at bawdy taverns, drinking in the company of Falstaff, Bardolph, Scroop, Nym and Mistress Quickly. But once his despairing father dies, Henry sheds folly like a snake sheds a skin. In Henry V he is kingly, and Shakespeare suggests that his transformation is at the hands of God. Henry is charismatic and a natural leader, a Christian King, who shows fortitude, sound judgment and unwavering courage. He has a somewhat tenuous claim to the French throne, and he leads a travel-weary English army to glorious victory in battle at Agincourt against overwhelming French odds. In the final scene of the play, he cements his victory by wooing and winning fair Katherine, daughter of the defeated King Charles the Sixth of France.
Dashing young king, brave beyond measure, lots of battlefield gore and excitement, and then, boy wins girl - all good blockbuster stuff, and that is how Perfect is directing Henry V.
"My focus is on making Henry a likeable character," Perfect has said. "In blockbuster films, there's not a whole lot of subtext on character, and Henry is also simplified. He has to be as white as snow. All his problems belong in the past. He has to deny Falstaff and order the death of the traitors, Bardolph and Scroop, his old friends. Some of what he does is questionable, like when he orders all the French prisoners killed, after the French kill the English wagon boys. But Shakespeare sets Henry up as blameless. I believe in him."
Perfect plans a simple set - a platform, a throne and two chairs - in the small Cedar Riverside Peoples Theater, and he expects Shakespeare's words and the audience's imagination to take them to France. The backdrop will be black, with a minimal lighting design, and he will make use of the raised loft levels of the space for scenes like the siege of Harfleur.
"People are afraid of seeing Shakespeare," Perfect said. "They think they can't understand it. Our goal at Pigs Eye is to strip away the last 600 years of history and to reveal the basic elements of the story."
He has eliminated several minor roles and honed the script to an energy-infused production that lasts one hour, 45 minutes, including intermission. Perfect will use modern dress and American accents. "I call it 'the timeless present,'" he said. "They said of my Henry V for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival that it was a Classic Comics version [of the play.]"
Perfect is a Shakespeare enthusiast and innovator, who has acted with Shakespeare and Company in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, since 1989. He co-founded the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival in 1998, where his directing has earned national and international attention. In 2000, he returned to the Twin Cities and co-founded Pigs Eye Theatre.
He chose Ryan Parker Knox to play Henry, and Knox feels a kinship with his character. "His journey parallels mine," he said. "I had a wilder youth, but now, in my late twenties, I'm more serious." One of the most interesting scenes for Knox is one in which Henry must condemn his old friends to hang. "I feel his disbelief that friends could betray him. I'm fond, too, of the ceremony speech." In this speech, Henry says to common soldiers, who do not recognize him, "I think the King is but a man, as I am." Knox has mastered his many lines, but wrestles with the rapid emotional switch from military commander to wooer of Katherine. He is excited by the challenges of this demanding role.
When I re-read Henry V to prepare for this preview, its tone of righteous, God-sanctioned nationalism put me in mind of our present government, and Henry's dubious past parallel's President Bush's. Perfect agreed that he'd recognized the comparisons, but he chose not to pursue a political reading of the play.
"My primary focus is to tell a great story," he said. "I want people to come and laugh and feel sad and enjoy themselves. When you see a great film, you come out of it feeling great. I want people to come out of Pigs Eye's Henry V feeling great."
Henry V January 7 - 22, 2005. Thursdays - Sundays 7:30 p.m. Tickets $12 - $18. Pigs Eye Theatre, Cedar Riverside People's Center, 425, 20th Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 800-370-4920. www.pigseyetheatre.org.Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Twin Cities area