All through Shakespeare's great, self-questioning war whoop Henry V, the Chorus keeps coming on, apologizing to the audience for the theater's limitations in presenting grand scenes like battles or troop movements. It's false modesty, of course--Shakespeare, the "bending author" through whose "rough and all-unable pen" (fishing for compliments, are we, Billy?) the Chorus speaks, knows bloody well that his poetry shows us these events more vividly than a painter could.
Matthew Wiener, adapter-director of Actors Theatre of Phoenix's The Essential Henry V, had the good sense to pay attention to the Bard's exhortations. Rather than trying to mount an army on his stage, he deploys eight actors, clad in black like Heaven's Gate cultists, who present a compressed, stripped-for-combat abridgement of the text on a spare, gleamingly metallic set.
In the marvelous opening scene, the ensemble of seven (the eighth actor plays Henry) breaks from a huddle and speaks the Chorus' lines contrapuntally--it's an enthusiastic team. The ensemble then hustles us through the intermissionless hour and a half at a headlong pace, with swift, precise staging and snappy character delineations. The Brits stick to black, while the French wear white, like a set of chessmen.
Wiener has skillfully pared down the text to the best bits. The Pistol/Bardolph/Nym scenes are excised--though, confusingly, Henry still receives the report of Bardolph's death--and a few other strong moments land on the cutting-room floor, but we get most of the really memorable stuff, with admirable efficiency.
The most striking effect of Wiener's pruning is how it clears away the idea that Henry V is a simplistic paean to nationalism. Even more than Kenneth Branagh's splendid 1989 film, The Essential Henry V demonstrates what a deeply ambiguous play Henry V is. Shakespeare uses the tale of the young king's conquest of France, and his triumph at Agincourt over a vastly larger French army, to argue with himself--about the soul-stirring thrill of patriotism versus the manipulativeness of patriotic rhetoric, about the heroism of war versus its horrors and its slimy political underbelly, about the orthodoxy of the Divine Right of Kings versus its obvious real-life contradictions. When Henry V is boiled down, it becomes clear that these thematic mood swings aren't dramatic fat, but the very bones of the play.
The production has a central flaw: Its Henry (David Medina) is the weakest member of the cast. It's not that he's awful--he's not. In the character's quieter scenes--like when he discusses theology with the common soldiers, or in the final wooing scene--he's quite touching. And his revulsion at his own victory is an imaginative and effective bit of interpretation.
But Medina doesn't wear well in the role. His gestures are repetitive, and his delivery, especially in the big, declamatory scenes, may put you in mind of the William Shatner School--it's hurried and ragged. After hearing this good-natured, grinning kid deliver the famous "St. Crispin's Day" speech, I felt amazingly little urge to grab my sword and go kill Frenchmen. It was more like having witnessed a rock star give a preconcert pep talk to his roadies.
The rest of the cast of familiar Valley faces is excellent to a person. David Barker (who performed Inductions Dangerous, a similarly chopped-and-channeled one-man Richard III, at Arizona State University in 1992) plays the seedy, sycophantic Bishop of Canterbury to the hilt, manically scribbling his convoluted justification for Henry's claim to the French throne on an easel. Ken Love overcomes a Liberace-esque overcoat to bring a dignified sanity to the French King.
Mark De Michele, who has a princely bearing and a voice like a bassoon, brings a sly wit to Fluellen and to the Bishop of Ely, but I wouldn't have minded seeing him playing Henry--he's someone you can imagine following into battle. Molly Schaffer gender-hops serviceably as the Duke of Bedford before getting a showcase scene as a seductive and convincingly French-speaking Katherine. Bob Sorensen's Montjoy and Burgundy, Gerald Burgess' Exeter and Richard Trujillo's spoiled-brat Dauphin are all creditable turns.
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Overall, my response to The Essential Henry V was regret that this sort of staging is considered experimental rather than standard. This is how I want to see Shakespeare--actors in comfortable clothes on a blessedly empty stage, concentrating on poetry and passion, not on whether there's a run in their stupid tights.
Admittedly, the cast of eight doesn't manage much theatrical spectacle--Henry V ought to have some sword rattlings and some sweeping entourages. But it's a worthwhile trade-off. I'd rather have all the roles spread over eight competent actors than over 25, of which only eight or nine are any good, while the rest leave you wincing every time they open their mouths.
It's not perfect, but The Essential Henry V has great poetry, and is vigorously staged and well-performed. That's the essential Shakespeare.
Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of The Essential Henry V continues through Sunday, October 26, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.