Posted by: strugglesome | April 4, 2011

War Games: The Well Theater Group Presents Henry the Fifth

Before you go any further, I feel it is my responsibility and my duty to inform you gentle readers that this diatribe will discuss a production that is playing not here in our gloriously fair city of Philadelphia, but in that far off backwater which you may or may not have heard of, New York. New York, you say? Do they have theater there? Well, in fact, they do, there is that Spiderman musical thing that wants be the next Macbeth in terms of disasters on set, there is some business with Shakespeare that happens for free in New York’s one park, there is Elf, the Musical, and lots of other shows which some might consider to be early signs of an imminent Apocalypse, in short, there are options. And I’m going to discuss one of them, The Well Theater Group’s Henry the Fifth,  in the following text, but you are under no obligation to read it, so turn back now if you so chose. And don’t blame me if you didn’t, you were warned.

Now, once more unto the breach, dear friends…but I’m getting ahead of myself. We should begin at the beginning and ask for a muse of fire, despite the fact that I suspect that to be in violation of all safety codes. But what is Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth if not a play that breaks all the rules? It kills off a beloved character (Falstaff) who doesn’t even get a death speech, it plays fast and loose with history (no surprise there), it spans continents and depicts battles, it’s a land dispute, it’s a love story, it’s a coming of age, it’s a war about nothing, it has no idea what it is. It’s also, frankly, a bit demanding. It starts out making all kinds of excuses about budgetary and spacial disabilities, and then it wants us, the audience, who already paid to see this thing, to imagine that we aren’t sitting in a theater on 45th street (or wherever) but in fact witnessing an epic battle in France! I mean, the nerve of asking us to:

Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings…

Seriously? What bloody cheek. And yet we do it, we participate in this so demanding play, we watch Hal become Harry become Henry, we watch France fall and England rise and we believe, we truly do, that we have seen a great battle even in a blackbox, that we have watched the ultimate underdog triumph in bloody victory when really we’ve watched a group of actors swing fake swords around and play pretend. This is the mastery of Shakespeare, and the great game of theater, and we invest deeply in it because that’s how this thing works. And if we truly had “A kingdom for a stage, princes to act/And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!”, well, it would probably be pretty boring, because history is commonplace, and art is special. Or it should be.

And so we come to the newly born Well Theater Group‘s inaugural production of this so greedy story about a king, a country, and some tennis balls. The brain child of several young New York based artists, The Well Theater Group has produced a piece of work that is both impressive and uneven, rife with triumphs and failures, just like the play itself. This story features an insecure and uncertain king (Drew Lewis), regretful of his wild past, eager to make a new name for himself . And thus he divorces himself from his companion Falstaff (who never makes an appearance but dies during the course of the play) and starts a war with France over territory, because nothing unifies a country and rallies them around a king like a good war. Narrated by a smirking chorus (Hannah Corrigan who, like the rest of the cast, plays a dizzying number of roles) the story shifts between Harry and the nobility and a group of blue-collar bums (Bix Bettwy, who is executive director of the company, Doug Harvey, Frank Franconeri and co-artistic director Jenny Nissel) who fight for England, volleying between the people who make decisions and the people who have to live with them, the kings and the country. Facing off against a pouty Dauphin (Aaron Bartz) and his rigid father the King of France (Franconeri), Harry and his ragtag band of brothers which also includes James Rees as a Welsh advisor, somehow manage to defeat the Goliath-like French forces and allow Harry to win the war and get the girl, French Princess Catherine (Corrigan). At least, I think that’s what happened, because it’s honestly kind of hard to tell.

Sam Kahn’s direction has gutted the play of its princely length, which is positive because that thing is a monolith, but in an effort to streamline the piece has obscured it, ironically making the storylines opaque in his efforts to clarify the action. Kahn, one of the artistic directors of the company,  has also staged the piece at a marathon speed, forcing the actors to make a dozen entrances and exits a scene, shifting characters and locations too quickly for the audience to follow and spending much of their stage time sweaty and breathless and clearly trying to remember where the hell in the story they are. While the character of the Chorus should in theory be helpful instead it feels deceptive, rather than the audience’s ally. And because costume designer Elisa Baxter’s rather uninspired choices don’t help anchor the audience in terms of who we are seeing when, trying to figure out character names and situations becomes a kind of guessing game. These are problems that could have easily been solved with, say, a hat, or a jacket, being slipped on or off on stage in a way that becomes significant, alerting us to the shift.  The fact that there is one set piece, a rather handsome throne which has pride of place at center stage, and the rest of the stage is blank ought to be helpful in our quest to imagine a world where there is none, but actually harms the piece because there is such a potential for that throne to be meaningful and metaphoric and instead it just gets in the ways of the furiously harried cast. Joan Racho-Jansen’s lights add nothing to the context, so it’s up to Bettwy and fellow company member Josh Ehrilich’s sound design to try to grant us some knowledge of these worlds, which it does, but it simply can’t do it alone. The fact is, you can do Shakespeare as simply or lavishly as you like, as long as you do it carefully and with strong intention. You don’t need a full-scale battlefield to do this play, you just need a vision, and you can pare it down but it’s best not to chop it all up.

However, if Kahn’s direction lacks in these aspects, it triumphs with the text itself. Simply put, this is some of the best spoken Shakespeare I’ve heard in a while. Everyone is clearly in the same play, speech-wise, the crisp and well-delivered dialog is matched by beautifully declaimed monologue, especially on the parts of Bettwy, Lewis, Nissel and Rees. The clarity of the language allows the narrative to survive the confusion and chaos of the piece, and showcases the talents of the cast, most of whom are quite young to be this skilled with this style of speaking. Lewis’ Hal is very strong if a touch too self-assured (He’s got to be Holden Caulfield, not Henry the 8th), but he’s sympathetic enough that if he seems a little too polished we can ignore it and focus on Harry coming into his own. Bartz and Harvey are both excellent sports, slurring through the Welsh tinged dialog with Rees and swirling through the swordplay (Fight Director Mark Rosenthal) with equal aplomb, and Bettwy is especially good as the amoral solider Pistol, spitting out Shakespearian curses like a drunken Elizabethan sailor. Nissel and Corrigan discharge those pesky all-French scenes with little trouble, and Nissel’s turn as the wisely critical “boy” who serves the soldiers is a smart and sympathetic picture of the moral issues that lie at the heart of this piece. There is a reason that this play is often used as an anti-war allegory, though you wouldn’t know it to look at this particular production, and it’s a shame that with such a strong, energetic and linguistically fluent cast the production doesn’t say more about the play itself. But maybe it doesn’t have to. After all, “men of few words are the best men”, aren’t they?

The Well Theater Group’s production of Henry the Fifth will run through April 10th in New York, and you can pick up tickets here. Or you can wait and start an email campaign to get them to come to Philadelphia. It’s up to you, “every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own”.



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