Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Once More Unto The Breach: Shakespeare Theatre Opens 2007 Season with Henry V
Also see Bob's review of The Underpants
Bonnie J. Monte has built her production around Shakespeare's employment here of a chorus which introduces each of the five acts and provides an epilogue. The chorus appears in the form of an actor-narrator (Jack Wetherall). Her setting is the open stage of a theatre with visible counterweights, various racks at the wings in which are stored props and costume accessories, and a smallish white draped cloth hanging from rigging toward the rear. Aside from some manipulation of the cloth, two narrow overlapping flat panels to represent the gates of the town of Harfleur, and a lush hanging tapestry for scenes in the court of Charles VI, there is no scenery. The stage floor is a full stage wooden "O" which is severely raked in order for it to become part of our sense that we are in an Elizabethan theatre (it is of no matter that the term "the wooden O" is a description of the shape of the Globe Theatre and its predecessor and not its stage). In this setting, there is an enticing story theatre quality to our actor-narrator's prologue:
that hath dar'd
And later, it is pure theatrical magic when our actor-narrator steps directly from that role and becomes the French herald Montjoy.
The design team expertly enhances Monte's concept. Michael Schweikardt's "wooden O" set provides a perfect setting. Dane Laffrey's largely unadorned and stylistically diverse costumes appear to have been drawn from the costume trunks at hand. The powerfully striking and effective sound design is by Karin Graybash, and the sharp lighting design is the work of Steven Rosen.
It is no secret that Henry V is a jingoistic play which takes nationalist pride in a war which was waged by an English monarch who felt entitled to assume the throne of France based upon a convoluted interpretation of the rules of ascension. However, rather than structuring her scenes only to build to the rousing speeches and battles (the latter are reported, but the battle action remains entirely off stage), Monte has wisely given weight to often perfunctorily presented scenes, making this production richly in texture. The scenes depicting the concerns and fears of officers and soldiers, the hypocrisy of venal clergy who meddle in royal politics, the hollowness of kingship and the foolish vanity of men are given full weight and prominence here.
There is a great deal of depth in the casting, and there is well defined characterization and clarity of speech throughout. David Conrad conveys strength and seriousness of purpose in Henry's determination to show to all that he has put his wastrel Prince Hal days behind him. As Henry makes his difficult choices, Conrad conveys the sense that, while he is striving to show that he is strong and resolute, Henry is less than certain of himself. Ames Adamson delivers a lively, most entertaining performance as the blustery Welshman, Captain Fluellen.
And then there is the humorous courtship of France's Princess Katherine by Henry. Kate Baldwin is a charming French-speaking presence, ultimately speaking just a soupcon of English. Chantal Jean-Pierre endows her lady-in-waiting Alice with totally delightful impish good humor. Second to none is master storyteller Jack Wetherall. Wetherall is our host, and he sets the table flawlessly, animating our evening throughout with his stylish storytelling.
Knowing that in October, STNJ will present Blood and Roses: Shakespeare's Henry VI, a single play adaptation of Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, adapted and directed by Brian B. Crowe, added to the joy in hearing our actor-narrator's closing lines (he first speaks of Henry V):
... This star of England: Fortune made his sword;
There are few New Jersey theatres with the resources and will to bring Shakespeare to New Jersey audiences on more than a rare basis. So "once more unto the breach, dear friends" has come the Shakespeare Theatre to fill the void with Bonnie J. Monte's exceptionally well conceived production of Henry V.
Henry V continues performances (Tues. 7:30 p.m./ Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m./ Sat.-Sun. 2 p.m./ Sun. 7 p.m.) through May 27, 2007 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-408-5600. online www.shakespeareNJ.org.
Henry V by William Shakespeare, directed by Bonnie J. Monte