Excerpted by kind permission from NealsPaper.com
While HENRY V contains two of Shakespeare’s most stirring speeches, smaller, less rhetorical moments are the more engrossing in Matt Pfeiffer’s staging for Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, which benefits more from individual nuances than from epic size or outlook. The more personal and intimate Pfeiffer’s production is, the better it is.
During the exquisitely composed “into the breach” oration, Henry ( Zack Robidas, competent but never piercing) is poised above his men and proclaims lofty, descriptive sentiments into the PSF house. The speech has effect, but it lacks intimacy. The more prosaic “St. Crispin’s Day” speech plays more personally and fraternally. While eschewing talk of death and emphasizing the honor of the wounds men will sustain and bear for life at Agincourt, Robidas has troops gathered around him and can look some in the eye.
Yet these monumental passages are not the highlights of Pfeiffer’s staging. Its best moments come when people are speaking plainly to each other, as when a disguised Henry encounters a common foot soldier as he walks among those about to fight in his name. This scene is one of Shakespeare’s most inspired. It shows a king, already known for his ability to get close to and be one with his people as the rowdy Prince Hal in Henry IV, leaving behind the pomp and circumstance of his office to see and listen to the men he may be consigning to death. He listens to a conversation here, watches men go about routine business there, then catches some critical remarks of a common soldier (Dan Hodge) who sees disaster ahead of rather than duty or glory. Henry and engages him in further conversation. Hodge puts a charge in the scene with his honest, realistic approach, giving an intensity that is missing from much of Pfeiffer’s production, which tends to work in broad strokes rather than in small touches.
Other scenes away from active battlefields and courts also rank among the strongest. Anthony Lawton has a wonderful comic turn as Captain Fluellen, a flinty Welshman who gives his philosophy of war with native wit more associated with his candor than with an actual desire to be funny or entertain. William Zielinski has a fine moment when Pistol, a friend of Henry from his wilder days as Hal, decides he’s had enough of war and determines, while he is one piece, to leave France and head back to London and home. At the French court, Jacob Dresch, playing the Dauphin, effectively kept from inheriting his father’s throne because of Henry’s victory at Agincourt, is marvelous as he looks at Henry and his English courtiers, with daggers in his eye and irrepressible scowl on his face. Wayne S, Turney brings a note of cheer to the production as the Duke of Exeter, a man who always has a twinkle in his eye. Akeem Davis, an estimable Henry when he played the role for Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre last fall, serves well as the Duke of Bedford. Marnie Schulenburg is a graceful Catherine, both is her bashful meeting with Henry and during her English lessons with Jane Ridley’s Alice.
Bob Phillips’s set efficiently changes from a royak court to a battlefield or tavern with utilitarian ease. Sam Fleming’s costumes befit the Elizabethan period. Henry’s doublet. emblazoned with various coats of arms including the Welsh lion and the French fleur de lys, is especially distinctive and lovely. Alex Bechtel deftly introduced the sounds of war, while also writing some leavening music. One sequence with Dane McMichael on guitar, was especially fine. Thom Weaver’s lighting evokes place, conditions, and times of day.
This is a HENRY that engages but doesn’t grab. It gives an intelligent overview of a script that mostly depicts wars and complex politics meant to justify the wars. It is an honorable staging. It is plain, but not without gifts. It is straightforward but has moments that shine. It tells a convoluted story without boring or losing pace, It goes about its business efficiently and quietly. Lack of fanfare, even during Henry’s big speeches, does not mean lack of interest. The simplicity of Pfeiffer’s staging allows you to stay abreast of all that is being discussed and its consequences. Read the full review >> [Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, Labuda Arts Center, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley, PA] July 16-August 2, 2015; pashakespeare.org.