There was a lot of melding going on at Round House Theatre/Silver Spring last Saturday night — eras, genres, generations, linguistic styles, political paradigms — and some of the combinations might have seemed beyond the reach of harmony to me: Woody Guthrie and William Shakespeare? Where do they overlap? And is medieval English imperialism like the American labor movement of the1930s in any way? My answer to the latter question would be no, and in most cases I would be inclined to chide a director who tried to equate them.
So why did I thoroughly enjoy Lumina Studio Theatre’s Brother Hal, which recasts King Henry V of England as Henry England, a union boss leading auto workers in revolt against the France Motor Company of Flint Michigan?
Perhaps because of Lumina’s mission, which is “to provide unique opportunities for young and adult actors of all levels of experience to perform Shakespeare, other plays of the classical repertory theatre, and modern plays that focus on the beauty of language.” The underlying assumption is that Shakespeare, classical repertory, and other plays that focus on the beauty of language offer something valuable to people of all ages and experiences, something worth protecting, something that defies the limits of notions like harmony and coherence.
I can’t tell you what that something is, but I know that it exists.
So does David Minton, Lumina’s Executive and Artistic Director. Believe it or not, he has turned Shakespeare’s Henry V into a musical, with songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, performed by a chorus of exuberant actors ranging in age from roughly ten years old to roughly sixty. In an effort to help young people — and maybe older ones as well — understand why we’re still doing Shakespeare, 450 years later, Minton has connected Henry’s underdog English army with the United Auto Workers who went on strike against General Motors in 1937.
That’s quite a stretch. The only thing those two groups have in common, as far as I can see, is that they were both out-gunned. And they won anyway. You might say that the Bardolph-Pistol-Nym contingent of Henry’s band of so-called brothers are equivalent to blue-collar factory workers in twentieth-century America, but most Americans with blue collars wouldn’t appreciate that. Henry himself might have backed that comparison — at least the Henry who walks among the campfires in disguise, pretending to be an ordinary guy among the ordinary guys who are probably going to die the next day, when he leads them into battle. That Henry disparages ceremony in a speech that harmonizes pretty well with Woody Guthrie, and that might be grounds enough for connecting the English with the auto workers.
For a while I was afraid that Minton planned to do that, simplify his Henry to a single one of the many men inside that character. He’s working with a lot of kids (two separate Lumina casts perform Brother Hal), after all, who probably need a simple explanation of what’s going on in Shakespeare’s storyline so they can learn how to speak his language, which they do quite well.
Jadyn Brick’s Fluellen, for example, is remarkably facile with language that’s written to sound hackneyed. She speaks in the accent of the American south, but she uses the phrase “look you” like a Welshman from the fifteenth century. Similarly, Maddy Sperber-Whyte has assimilated the character of Williams so thoroughly that she makes his language sound like the language she might use with friends. And Ben Lickerman, who plays Henry, delivers his hundreds and hundreds of lines with the admirable fluency that can come only from thorough immersion in Shakespeare’s syntax and rhythm, along with great dedication.
The pleasures of those remarkable performances, along with many others, might have been enough to satisfy me, under the circumstances, those and a few delightful scenes — for example, Blythe Reiffen, who plays Katherine France, trying to learn the English they speak on the East Side in case she has to marry Henry. Or Henry delivering the famous “Once more into the breach” speech from the top of a barricade erected to keep the workers out of the factory. Or the climactic battle of Agincourt played in stop-action on a stage full of smoke, with the lights going on and off. Or MacMorris and Fluellen spinning in verbal circles with their foreheads pressed together.
There are also some ingenious segues between Shakespeare’s work and Minton’s adaptation. When Hal flashes back to moments from his life with Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, Falstaff’s line “Now, Hal what time of day is it, lad?” prompts the chorus to respond, “It’s time to strike!” And the famous “little touch of Harry in the night,” when Henry purges all of his misgivings and invokes his father’s ghost, is followed brilliantly by Molly Graham Hickman singing “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” in a simple, moving rendition.
But Minton doesn’t keep the story simple. He lets us see that Henry wishes he were someone else, or that he lived in a different world. Henry knows it’s wrong to attack his neighbor for no reason, and he does it anyway, and Ben Lickerman does an admirable job of showing us that complexity inside the king. “The stage is a thoroughly political place where the secret moral life of both the characters and the audience is suddenly made plain to all who are watching,” Senator Jamie Raskin, who helped Minton adapt the play, writes in the program notes.
“This infusion of labor politics into Henry V makes the play’s triumphalism more digestible,” Raskin muses, “but even this electrifying District 20 version leaves us with more questions than answers.”
Closes May 11, 2014
Lumina Studio at
Round House Silver Spring
8641 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
2 hours with 1 intermission
Saturday and Sunday
Details and Tickets
“Must politics always revolve around power…?” Senator Raskin asks. “…must leaders always take advantage? Does the new boss have to turn out like the old boss?” I might add more fundamental questions, like is everybody more than one person? Why do we proceed with plans we know are wrong? What makes us want to overlook the dark components of our character, and what happens if we indulge that desire in our selves? Or inculcate it in our children?
“Don’t look to the characters on the stage for the answers,” Raskin says, “look to the actors on the stage. Lumina is all about educating the young mind and soul, so that’s where I’m placing my hope: the actors.”
Yes, in the actors and in visionaries like David Minton, whose work reminds people young and old that answers are the least important part of art and life.
Brother Hal, adapted by David Minton and Jamie Raskin from Shakespeare’s Henry V. Directed by David Minton. Featuring Ben Lickerman, Blythe Reiffen, Jadyn Brick, Keegan Vernon-Clay, Ezra Grimes, Sophia Falvey, Cole Sebastian, Grace Sperber-Whyte, Tolly Colby, Maddy Sperber-Whyte, Sarah Trunk, Daniel West, Zev Shofar, Hayden Haddad, Anna Brookes, Rowan Talmadge, Makenna Beam, Catherine Horowitz, Mira Subramanian, Claudia Gryder, Sarah Brand-Kessler, Sophia Varnai, Nell Pennington, Maxine DeVeaux, Isabel Echavarria, Russell Corbin, and Ilan Brick. Guest musicians: Tina Chancey, Bruce Hutton, Molly Graham Hickman. Set design: Jim Porter. Produced by Lumina Studio Theatre. Reviewed by Mark Dewey