Chicago Theater Review: HENRY V (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 8, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

BEYOND THE BREACH

CST_HenryV_01_LizLauren (800x565)It honors the text. That’s praise enough for any production, especially when the drama is the world’s greatest propaganda play: Henry V. Shakespeare’s most patriotic work all but wallows in the come-from-behind victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and all but beatifies the warrior king whose false claim to the throne of France during the Hundred Years War suddenly seemed to succeed. A superb director for seven years at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Christopher Luscombe brilliantly helms Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s third revival of this war-loving play—the first in its Courtyard Stage on Navy Pier and the company’s signature work. (Its fabled 1986 rooftop Henry V at Lincoln Park’s Red Lion Pub put it on the theatrical map, followed by a revival at the Ruth Page Theatre.)

Setting it correctly in the 15th century, with leather-armored soldiers and slim silk gowns for the play’s two French women, this fast-paced, gloriously intoned 175-minute spectacle focuses like a laser on its title hero. Harry Judge’s handsome, confident, and driven Henry is every inch a king, not the wastrel Prince Hal of CST_HenryV_05_LizLauren (800x529)previous plays but a freshly mounted sire ready to expand his inheritance at the cost of his life (as it did, in 1422, when he was only 36).

To heal the factionalism following his father’s brutal overthrow of Richard II, Henry employs the French expedition as both lethal distraction and a quest for land. After quickly foiling a plot on his life (where Henry mischievously delights in irony like the later Richard III), he embarks, as the unnamed Chorus beautifully describes, with his huge fleet at Southampton to sail to the channel port of Calais.

The rest, of course, is history. It’s pictured, by Kevin Depinet, by a throne-room façade and giant banners that serves both France and England, then descends to create a siege bridge to Harfleur and a road to Agincourt. It’s told in richly-detailed scenes that connect high and low through Shakespeare’s psychological penetration and effortless compassion (even for the justly rattled French): We see the English soldiers—including petulant rivals from Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—united by a CST_HenryV_04_LizLauren (800x510)king who mixes with them incognito before the battle as he wrestles with his guilt over the deaths of his subjects.

Judge relishes Henry’s few private moments and his resoundingly rousing battlefield speeches (the latter “Crispin’s Day” cry to arms much more intimate than usually portrayed). He’s equally skilled in his alternately bashful and firm-footed courtship of the demure Princess Katherine (properly pert Laura Rook), accompanied by her watchful chaperone Alice (Susan Wingert). In battle, dangerously choreographed by Matt Hawkins in real speed and slo-mo, Henry and his knights and archers are efficient killing machines, mowing down the fleur-de-lis French with clinical abandon. Watching this once and future master monarch, you almost wish Henry had lived longer or was matched by today’s royalty. But then peace might have tested and exposed this Plantagenet in ways war was kind enough to conceal.

As always, C.S.T. can command the finest liege actors around the lake. Here they double up to show their skills. Worth remembering are Greg Vinkler’s loudmouth Pistol and morose Charles VI, Kevin Gudahl’s masterful Duke of Exeter, Samuel Taylor’s vainglorious Dauphin (approaching Pepé Le Pew a tad too closely), Kevin Quinn’s valiant Boy, James Newcomb’s fiery Fluellen, Larry Neumann Jr. as CST_HenryV_03_LizLauren (800x556)bibulous Corporal Nym, Patrick Clear’s steady Sir Thomas Erpingham and politic Bishop of Ely, and Caleb Probst’s daring and doomed Duke of York.

It’s admirable how much eloquence soars from a script that could easily be crushed by the sheer weight of its rampaging action (though the tedious bit with Henry and a glove he exchanges with Bret Tuomi’s choleric Bardolph could be shortened). We may be rooting for the wrong side—happily, almost a decade after Henry’s death, Joan of Arc turned the tables—but we cheer nonetheless. A perfect play for and about young men, Henry V has been perfectly preserved by its own testosterone-flavored adrenalin.

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photos by Liz Lauren

Henry V
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
scheduled to end on June 15, 2014
for tickets, call 312.595.5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Scott Priz May 20, 2014 at 9:22 pm

“We may be rooting for the wrong side—happily, almost a decade after Henry’s death, Joan of Arc turned the tables—but we cheer nonetheless.”

Has this reviewer gone mad? Considering the damnable French the right side? Why, if they had their way, they would have conquered glorious England, and set up guillotines on every street corner to behead any man who dared pronounce their accursed language incorrectly.

I submit to the editors of this website that this reviewer is a madman, who should be quarantined from the rest of civil society until he can get his Francophelia under control. To have viewed this play and not had an uncontrollable urge to conquer France only speaks to the degeneracy of our modern age.

Huzzah huzzah huzzah for England, death to the enemies of Its Crown!

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