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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Henry V
Hartford Stage
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Zander's review of The Roommate


Stephen Louis Grush
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Hartford Stage's exceptionally catchy, accessible take on William Shakespeare's Henry V is all about director Elizabeth Williamson's distinctive vision of this history. In theater-in-the-round mode through November 11th, the production feels contemporary and is actualized by a cast in which many play multiple roles.

Henry, who is King of England, is played by Stephen Louis Grush. The actor's head is more or less shaved and he is outfitted, for the most part, in a t-shirt and black pants. At times, he needs to have something more, so costumer Beth Goldenberg provides additional covering. When Henry is later in disguise, he sports a drab, dark olive green jacket with hood. Grush is muscular and compact. Other Shakespearean Henry leads have been more of the glamorous/matinee idol type. The character has been idealized or viewed as Machiavellian. Grush, as director Williamson's Henry, hangs out with people. He is strong, masculine and, to be sure, cares about justice. This Henry is not an epic hero but, rather, seems thrust into his role. Grush holds firm to his portrayal of the king and provides a top level performance.

In terms of plot, the play finds England preparing for an invasion of France. There are no elaborate scenic effects to frame Hartford Stage's production. The stage flooring, designed by Nick Vaughan, depicts a map of England and France as water separates the countries. The action will lead up to a pivotal battle at Agincourt with the odds stacked against Henry's soldiers since the French have many more fighters. Yet, the English are dramatically successful.

Henry returns home and then goes to the French court. He very much wishes to woo Katherine (Evelyn Spahr). There is a language difficulty, but Henry, now more relaxed than earlier and wearing a sport coat, persuades the lively young woman that he does love her. This leads to a union of England and France. Henry, as Grush depicts him, is impelled to invade France. This King is a Christian who evidently believes in prayer. He does not cut a tragic figure but is very human, beset by temperament swings and not an especially grand or legendary figure.

The Chorus (Peter Francis James) is influential in providing narrative linkage in this production. James has close-cropped gray hair, wears a cardigan sweater, appears to speak the play's first words, and many other times returns to help tell Shakespeare's story. The Chorus serves as a connector. Another one of my favorite characters is Pistol (Miles Anderson), a man who is sometimes in touch with Henry. While Pistol is not especially courageous, he does slay a French soldier. But it seems that Pistol is not all that certain of the value of war.

Williamson has many a woman playing a man's part in the show. The non-conventional casting choices are excellent. The director, too, before one word of text is uttered, has some of her actors warming up on stage or speaking with theatergoers or amongst themselves. When the presentation begins, however, it is with great discipline.

In all, the director's decisions allow for and honor Shakespeare's language. As Henry is rallying his soldiers to fight the French, he says, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead." The evening before a prolific contest, he wonders about the people who will go to war as opposed to a king who has a better life. "Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children and our sins lay on the king!" Finally and most familiar, Henry urges his men's forward with the St. Crispin's Day monologue. "What's he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin; If we are mark'd to die, we are enough to do our country loss; and if to live, the fewer men, the greater share of honor."

Director Williamson benefits from spare rather than the cliched less being more. Her production is intellectually enticing and one which encourages those watching to feel very much involved with the process of the play, rather than viewing from afar. Hartford Stage's Henry V is committed and adhering.

Henry V, through November 11, 2018, at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford CT. For tickets, call 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.


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