The Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey has opened its 45th season with an exciting and exemplary production of an historical play that, it seems, is not destined to lose its topicality. It is virtually impossible to attend Shakespeare’s “Henry V” today without becoming acutely aware of the political savvy that drives the plot and the recklessly nationalistic monarch at its center. And who is so blind as not to see this bit of English history in the light of our own country’s missions.
Although there is nothing exceptional in the sight of a darkened stage within a theater lit only by the obligatory ghost light, the trap doors, the ladders, the unpainted flats, chests and props are soon put to effective use by a superb company under the direction of Bonnie J. Monte.
Jack Wetherall, who portrays with elan the chorus, makes quite an entrance out of a center stage trap door and is only too eager to capture our attention with his prologue for this tale of war and peace, love and hate, loyalty and deception, and all those issues that the Bard processes in one of the most thrilling epics in the canon.
It is easy to understand how Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation was admired for its patriotic zeal during the height of World War II, and how equally was this play extolled for the next generation in Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film version for the playing Henry as an impetuous imperialist.
Find topical relevance as you may, but you might want to just sit back and enjoy Monte’s basically unthreatening (to either the left or right wing) vision. It finds a way to indicate the pros and cons of political and social implications as well as embraces the mainly adventurous and, in one memorable scene, its amorous intentions.
Despite its three-and-one-half hour length, you are likely to take heed from the get-go to the words spoken by the American actor David Conrad, who plays the title role and is in his third season at this theater. It takes an actor of Conrad’s resources, most specifically his ability to speak the language with conviction, that is the heart of this production. His Henry is virileand combative, not only a lovable liar and fraud, but also a duplicitous schemer, savior, and lover.
It is almost impossible to watch this play and not see our own country and its president reflected in the course of the action. The play, in which the success of a reckless young king, who, trying to follow in the footsteps of his father, is eager to assure his court of his ability to lead, will undoubtedly be seen by some as a parallel to Bush and his administrative team. The opening scene — in which the king, keenly aware of the pressing and troublesome religious, social, and economic issues at hand, shrewdly uses war against France as a diversionary tactic — is especially prescient.
But Monte’s approach is neither heavy-handed nor does it appear to take a stand on whether Henry was as divinely inspired as Saint Joan or merely buoyed by his own vainglorious self-determination. If Shakespeare purposely doesn’t make it crystal clear, why should Monte or, for that matter Conrad, who in this case gives a performance that resounds with cleverly balanced contradictions, rhetorical bluster, and self-effacing heroism.
The fact that we rarely lose sight of the play as a play within a play upon a stage is occasionally addressed by designer Michael Schweikardt when a huge territorial tapestry unrolls to backdrop the French court. Turquoise is the dominant color accented in the otherwise drab palette of cleverly conceived catch-as-catch-can costumes designed by Dane Laffrey. It is astonishing how visually arresting the action scenes become even though there is little beyond Steven Rosen’s extraordinary lighting to indicate a bloody battle or the reality of war. We get the message.
Also the accents, particularly those of the French and the Scottish, are not only commendable but are exercised with relish. There are many fine performances on both sides of the breech. As to be expected, the French impress with their impudence and condescending air, with much of it relegated to John Patrick Doherty, as the Dauphin, and Ian Stuart, as Charles VI, King of France. The Scots are tenacious and blustery, namely Ames Adamson, Sean Tarrant, Salvatore Cacciato, and Scott McIntosh, as the Captains Fluellen, Gower, Jamy and MacMorris.
Brent Langdon and Darren Matthias, as constantly bickering and thieving camp followers Pistol and Nym, admirably keep their comically-defined squabbling within the bounds of realism, as does Scott Whitehurst as their cohort Bardolph. Seamus Mulcahy projects a wry sense of humor as the boy in their dubious employ. It wasn’t easy grabbing the spotlight from these scene-stealers, but Chantall Jean-Pierre proved a force to contend with as she not only played the lusty Hostess Quickly, Pistol’s wife, but returned as Alice, the in-English-educated lady-in-waiting to Princess Katherine. The risque and humorous French lesson between the coy Princess Katherine (Kate Baldwin) and Alice is invigorated by the charm of these two actors.
If the comical moments are far and few, it is for the incongruous humors of this by-war-possessed Henry to prevail. Standout among these is the famous and much admired wooing scene. In this climactic and totally disarming scene, Conrad employs every posture and pose at his disposal to win the love of the cautious Katharine. The absolutely beautiful and beguiling Baldwin, who is noted primarily for her musical theater credits, including “The Full Monty,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and “Wonderful Town,” is not only making her debut at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, but taking on her first Shakespearean role. Her performance, small as it is, is a dazzler. As a result the play ends not with the brutal awareness that everything the English have gained is destined to be lost, but that everything that Henry has won for the moment is well worth it.
“Henry V,” through Sunday, May 27, Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, on the campus of Drew University. 973-408-5600.