Operation Enduring Shakespeare
Last June Arianna Huffington posted an article in Salon that compared Dubya with Shakespeare's Henry V. Henry was born into a prominent family, wasted his youth, pickled himself on booze, fell ass-backward into power, then started an unprovoked war of conquest with an eye toward rising to heavyweight status. Of course, Henry actually fought in a war, which is where the parallels to our own George II are abruptly terminated. No matter--the play's appeal will outlast the administration. In the latest show by Pigs Eye Theatre, it results in a credible but unexceptional production.
Utilizing no set save for a cheap-looking throne, this Henry V is stripped-down visually but attacks the play with gusto--on opening night last Friday, the first three acts were bulldozed in less than an hour. Artistic director Randall J. Funk starts things off on a promising note. His chorus announces to the audience that some old-school CGI will be required of the audience--in other words, they'll have to pretend they're seeing vast battles, ships, and explosions. Funk handles the verses with great ease, facility, and clarity, and his leather-jacketed presence creates a casual interlocutor and audience ally throughout this frequently poker-faced drama.
Ryan Parker Knox is Henry, and his performance can fairly be characterized as a modest success. He has a cleft-chinned boyishness and projects a sort of earnest good humor. When the French dauphin insults him with a gift of tennis balls to symbolize his lightweight wastrel past, Knox's Henry duly blows up, but only after flashing a wry grin to acknowledge that it's a pretty good joke. In the crucial role of Exeter (a 15th-century Dick Cheney, without the sneer) is Kevin Carnahan, who anchors his part of the stage with enough gravity to pull off his role as elder to callow Henry.
This is a big play, and under Tim Perfect's direction the cast blows through the work with a speed that tends to vanquish nuance. A few nice touches emerge, such as Tina Frederickson's lament after Falstaff's death and Alex Moros's take on flustered Welsh caricature Fluellen. Jay Urmann's Pistol suggests Mick Fleetwood as a ne'er-do-well with a dagger in his belt, and his interplay with Stu Naber's disheveled Nym locates the earthy texture of the scenes.
Less successful is Chase Korte's Dauphin, who provides a single note of seething anger (while displaying some decent action moves in his death scene). Several other performances blend into the pack; the cast maintains a level of performance that is unspectacular but essentially does the job. I suspect that Mike Postle does good work as Montjoy, but it's hard to judge a performance by an actor with his back to the audience most of the evening. Another staging snafu had Knox's collapse at the siege gates visually blocked by other actors.
In a play about a king's ascension through conquest, the audience needs to see the sort of man who would sacrifice peace and others' lives for his own vindication. Knox ably handles the pre-battle scenes of Henry moving incognito among his troops, and his reading of Henry's self-absolution from the fate of his soldiers is a high point. Knox is similarly convincing during Henry's prayer scene, a reminder that postmodern irony was in short supply during Shakespeare's time.
Where things break down for Knox is in his portrayal of Henry the royal conqueror. He does rage and thunder, but misses the vanity, the posturing, and the raw self-love of a man who can not only wrap his mind around the idea of embodying a country but who also digs the idea of stealing someone else's. Knox flashes doubt but without the regal hubris that should subsequently fill the void. His wooing of Catherine (Emily Hansen, a little too light in the role but with a comedic presence) is the nadir of Henry as regular guy, though it's admittedly an odd scene to begin with. Pigs Eye, in all, provides a solid take on the work, albeit one that frequently seems breathlessly rushed and too lacking in distinguished performances. Still, it beats the tar out of the latest Dubya interview with Barbara Walters.
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