Guest review by: Eric Grode
One particularly compelling throughline in Shakespeare’s history plays is the maturation of Henry V. When does he morph from the prank-loving, bawdy-house-frequenting Prince Hal into the sage, shrewd, continent-conquering King Henry? Judging from Evan Cabnet’s crisp but thematically questionable production of Henry V, featuring all 13 members of this year’s acting Chautauqua Theater Company Conservatory, that crucial day has yet to arrive.
The decision to use the conservatory and only the conservatory, without the guest performers that so frequently dot Chautauqua Theater Company productions, can make for a wonderful glimpse at its breadth and depth, and this Henry is no exception. Whipping their way among more than 50 characters, these young men and women can always be heard and recognized and understood — something missing in all too many Shakespeare productions. Their consistent youth is always noticed as well, though, and this works against the story of Henry V, who is acutely aware of his perceived former status as a boy among men. Many of his actions are a direct response to this, and before Henry appears onstage, we hear that “consideration like an angel came and whipped th’ offending Adam out of him.”
Ask poor forsaken Falstaff, whose heartbroken demise occurs just off stage.
But Cabnet teams with Jonathan Majors (whose maturation was memorably on display last year in A Raisin in the Sun) to create a slouchy, quippy Henry, one whose offending Adam is still in ample display. In the lengthy “Salic law” passage that Henry’s cronies use to justify ginning up a war with France, Cabnet salvages one of the deadlier passages in all of Shakespeare by showing the king to be just as bored and baffled by the lawyerly justifications as the rest of us. However, this approach sits uncomfortably alongside the passage immediately following it, in which France taunts Henry by presenting him a “gift” of tennis balls. The preponderance of youthful faces all over the Bratton stage makes this potentially devastating slight seem more like a collegiate prank.
Whether he’s quipping his way through the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech or turning the threatened war crimes of the “Will you yield?” soliloquy into a coercive one-on-one chat or courting the French Princess Catherine (a charming Whitney White) with coltish vigor, Majors’ Henry is extremely likable company. To use contemporary political jargon, he’s the 15th-century monarch you’d most want to have a beer with. But wasn’t that the very thing that Henry wanted — needed — to remedy before the play even began?
One consequence of this loose-limbed depiction at the production’s center is the extended comic sequences involving various half-hearted military types — which can drag a bit under the best of circumstances — become even more repetitive. Fine comic work by Keren Lugo and, especially, Kevin Shewey can’t keep diminishing returns from setting in amid all the boxed ears, desultory challenges and force-fed leeks.
Even with these longueurs, Cabnet does a terrific job creating precise, inviting stage pictures all over Lee Savage’s unit set, which consists almost entirely of a pair of moving scaffolds (and is lit superbly by Justin Townsend). He divides the Chorus’ lines deftly among a small handful of skilled actors and adds just the right amount of savagery to show the new, remorseless side of Henry in the final battle at Agincourt.
Harold Bloom has pointed out the paradoxical importance of his beloved Sir John Falstaff in Henry V, even though — or perhaps because — he never actually appears in it. “The absence of Falstaff is the large presence in this drama,” Bloom writes, “since Hal is thereby absent also.” Well, Sir John may remain relegated to the sidelines, but Hal remains a brash, dynamic, always genial presence in this production. His reappearance is a mixed blessing.
Eric Grode is the director of the Goldring Arts Journalism Program at Syracuse University and a regular freelance theater contributor to The New York Times.