Review: “Henry V”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier
When: through June 15
Tickets: $48-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic
 
I’ve always had a special affection for “Henry V.” That may be because it was one of the first Shakespeare plays I studied in school. Or because the lessons about integrity and good and bad leadership, both on and off the battlefield, are so clear. Or because I wrote a whole paper on the St. Crispin’s Day speech King Henry delivers to inspire his men on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.

But about a quarter of the way into Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Henry V,” directed by Englishman Christopher Luscombe, I realized I was bored. At intermission I mentioned this to my companion, and he replied, “What do you expect? It’s Shakespeare.”

Needless to say, this response was far from a satisfactory explanation. I’ve seen plenty of thoroughly engrossing, even exciting, productions of Shakespeare but not so many of this play that I might simply be tired of it. And there’s much to recommend about CST’s return to the work that launched the company in 1986 on the rooftop of the Red Lion Pub.

For starters, Luscombe crafts some stunning visual images and makes great use of CST’s thrust stage and the whole auditorium. Kevin Depinet’s deceptively simple scenic design is surprisingly powerful, especially with the help of Philip S. Rosenberg’s lighting. Mariann S. Verheyen’s straightforward costumes, most in somber colors, have a period feel without any gimmicks. And Lindsay Jones’s original music and sound design are terrific, enhancing the action and mood at every turn.

The director also emphasizes Shakespeare’s habit of reminding us that we are watching a theatrical recreation of events, not the events themselves. This serves the piece well by highlighting the difficulty of flitting back and forth between England and France and staging a whole battle, even as it deflects any criticism of the way it’s being done. In a canny move, Luscombe divides the Chorus speeches that begin the acts among the characters, who are deployed all over, establishing a kind of community and making us part of it.

Canadian actor Harry Judge, who plays Henry, is suitably young, handsome, earnest, and likable. It’s easy to believe that he’s the wiser version of the man who hung out with Falstaff (whose death is reported in this play) and his cohorts Bardolph (Bret Tuomi), Pistol (Greg Vinkler), and Nym (Larry Neumann Jr.), all of whom the king sends to their deaths for treason. He also grapples fairly convincingly with whether or not he’s justified in taking the country to war and if the costs are worth it. As he walks around his camp in disguise before Agincourt, assessing the mood of his men, we get a real sense of how the odds were stacked against them. As a result, his Henry comes across as a human being—with even a hint of a dark side—rather than the subject of hagiography, which is what “Henry V” essentially is.

But the humanization of Henry has a cost. Judge’s performance lacks charisma, a quality we’ve come to expect in leaders and heroes. Nothing he says or does is riveting or compelling, whether he’s being a brave soldier forging into the fray or a tongue-tied suitor wooing the French Princess Katherine (Laura Rook), whose political marriage to him is a given. While Rook is rather charming, the chemistry between them is almost nil. The Princess’s attempts to learn English from her lady-in-waiting, Alice (Sally Wingert), are more amusing.

The overall pace of the production is measured, even staid, adding to the problem. Fortunately, a strong supporting cast and a few lively performances help. Tuomi, Neumann, and especially Vinkler as the aptly named hot-tempered Pistol have a lot of fun as the king’s onetime bad companions, while James Newcomb stands out as the stalwart Welshman, Captain Fluellen. Kevin Gudahl is rock-solid as ever as the Duke of Exeter, and on the French side, Samuel Taylor’s smug, self-absorbed Dauphin is the picture of a spoiled royal who fails to accurately size up his adversary. Most touching of all is Kevin Quinn as the Boy, the victim who most movingly brings home the cost of war.

So, should you go see this “Henry V”? Weighing the pros and cons, I’d say “yes.” It may not be great, but the acting and stagecraft offer enough to think and talk about.