The teacher (Nick Martorelli) serves as the play's Chorus, and his eight students (four males and four females) play all the other roles. These students are wearing standard prep school attireblue blazers, grey sweaters, red necktiesbut with just a few slight changes in costume, they're able to transform convincingly into knights, princes and soldiers. On a whiteboard on the classroom wall, the teacher has written "All parts assigned at top of class - Be Prepared!" But you won't need any preparation to enjoy the inventive wit that fills every scene of director Aaron Cromie's production.
Waitis there actually wit in Henry V, that blood-soaked, war-obsessed "Once more unto the breach" play? Yes, as unlikely as it seems, for Cromie's concept makes this centuries-old play seem fresh. Consider the scene in which the Bishop of Canterbury explains the "Salique Law," which gives King Henry the justification to invade France. In this version, the long and confusing speech is turned into a comedy sketch, as the Bishop (Amanda Bernhardt, in a droll performance) pulls out an overhead projector and tosses pictures of dozens of kings onto the glass to illustrate her points. This amplifies the absurdity of the speech and shows just how dubiousand dangerousHenry's quest for power is.
Sometimes the comedic approach goes too far, such as in the scene where the Battle of Agincourt is fought with lacrosse sticks, tennis racquets and paper airplanes. It's far too flippant a treatment of a battle which actually took place, costing thousands of men their lives. But for the most part, Cromie's concept works well.
Unfortunately, the acting isn't quite as strong as the concept deserves. The young cast is made up of students from the theatre's Classical Acting Academy (who have taken a six week long intensive course in classical acting techniques). They all have strong voices, and they nimbly move from character to character and emotion to emotion. As Henry, Michael Gregory is impressive: he oozes menace in his cold stare when he threatens traitors, and he conveys touching doubts in his soliloquy on the eve of battle. But when he delivers the famous St. Crispian's day speech to inspire his troops ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), there's nothing inspirational about his delivery. This Henry should be intimidating, but in Cromie's version, he's just one of the guys, wearing a backpack and a backwards-turned baseball cap. When the Chorus is more of an authority figure than King Henry, something's out of kilter. The same problem affects much of the cast: they try to give their characters a sense of majesty and significance, but their youth works against them.
Still, what the cast lacks in dramatic heft it more than makes up for in raw talent and youthful energy. They really make Cromie's audacious concept work, and they make this old story surprisingly exciting. You may think you know Henry Vmaybe you even learned it in prep school yourselfbut when you see this production, you'll never know what's coming next.
Henry V runs through August 15, 2010, at The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, 2111 Sansom Street. Tickets are free on a first come, first served basis, available at the Box Office three hours before curtain each day. For more information, call the Box Office at (215) 496-8001 or visit phillyshakespeare.org.