Director par excellence Aaron Cromie brings his inimitable brand of wit and insight to The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s exuberant interpretation of HENRY V, a main-stage revival of his successful summer presentation with the company’s Classical Acting Academy in 2010. Shakespeare’s famous history play examines the life and times of the British king who reigned from 1413-22, during the 100 Years War and its pivotal Battle of Agincourt in 1415. But instead of setting it in the palaces, battlefields, and encampments of England and France, here Cromie places the multitude of past events, locales, and characters in the current-day classroom of a prep school, with the contents of the play outlined by the teacher and re-enacted by the students for their final exam. In so doing, he ensures that the complex storylines are crystal clear to the audience; the result is a readily comprehensible and thoroughly engaging production that informs while it entertains.
Everything about this show is clever and inventive (including the graphic design for the postcard by 20nine, which consists of a royal crown composed of pencils and erasers). The young ensemble features some of the best emerging talents in Philadelphia, who bring a youthful energy, passion, and humor to the characters and their conflicts in Henry’s coming-of-age story. Akeem Davis performs the role of the king who matures from the undisciplined Prince Hal of Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 into a commanding and inspiring leader, winning both the battle and the hand of the French princess, briefly uniting their two warring countries. Ama Bollinger is delightful as Princess Kate, speaking excitedly in her native French while attempting to learn English so she can communicate with her future husband. Sam Sherburne as the teacher delivers the lines of Shakespeare’s chorus to set the stage for his class’s scenes, and the supporting cast (Richard Chan, Ife Foy, Jenna Kuerzi, Johnny Smith, Lizzie Spellman, and Jahzeer Terrell) assumes the roles of multiple historical personages that illuminate the students’ own personalities and parallel their demeanors and varying degrees of motivation in school, rendering Shakespeare’s universal themes and characters fully relatable to all ages.
The design team (set by Dirk Durossette, costumes by Amy Martin, props by Louise Grafton, lighting by Matthew DeJong, and sound by Cromie and Mary Tuomanen) embraces the concept with well-observed details appropriate to a classroom. But the design elements also double as scene-setting devices (an overhead projector with transparencies that explain the characters; a blackboard with the story’s changing locales written in chalk; a whiteboard with the main themes of the play that are addressed in the students’ final exam; a laptop that emits the sounds of war with the touch of a key; and pendant lighting fixtures that swing back and forth in combat), and as battle gear (the school’s sports equipment and musical instruments become weapons, and a row of the students’ chairs provides a line of defense against the paper airplanes they throw) in Michael Cosenza’s animated fight choreography, with the students high-fiving each other after England’s victory.
This is a unique production that brings history to life and makes learning fun, in keeping with The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s dedicated educational mission of making the Bard’s work accessible to high schools. High-fives all around! [2111 Sansom Street] October 22-November 16, 2014; phillyshakespeare.org.