I brought a pen and notepad to Henry V on Sunday. Rookie mistake. I should have brought my sword and armor to director Robert Richmond’s muscular and immensely entertaining new production at Folger. In the skilled hands of Richmond and his creative team, history not only comes to life — it becomes the gut-punching present.
It won’t come as much surprise that this bruiser of a history play — the fourth of Shakespeare’s to track Prince Hal’s march toward kingship, after Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, and Henry IV Part 2 — runs thick with humor, kinship, slaughter, and the acrid smell of war. What is surprising is how swiftly and forcefully this exceptional cast grabs us by the collar and tugs us headlong into the 15th century. No fat gets chewed here; this Henry V is all sinews and beating heart, leaping from scene to scene with knife-blade specificity.
An athletic mindset jibes well with a play centering on an English king — young Hal no more — tasked with snatching the regal reins amid civil war and driving on to conquer France, working all the while to pull the Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Brits into the same fold.
The action is clear and kinetic, and fight choreographer Casey Kaleba teams well with sound designer Michael Rasbury and lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin for some truly explosive battle sequences (the climactic Battle of Agincourt, as elsewhere, suffers not at all from Richmond’s casting of a mere 13 actors in 48 roles).
But we’re not merely on board a war machine. Richmond, who recently directed Folger’s smart productions of Julius Caesar, Othello, and Henry VIII, has a tested ear for the acoustic contours of Shakespeare’s lines, and the actors put great attention to polishing the more subtle intentions of each word spoken.
The rhythms of comedy shine particularly bright this time around. We discover that Henry V inspires but also tickles, with rich pockets of humor tucked tight between the artillery blasts. Catherine Flye is marvelously funny as both Mistress Quickly and later on as nurse to Katherine of France (Katie DeBuys). These two ladies, pidgin-toeing their way through an English vocabulary lesson, provide one of several reprieves from the grand campaign.
Meanwhile, back in the fray, the supporting roles are a hoot. James Keegan, as Pistol, makes brute humor look graceful. He’s flanked by the rambunctious and equally funny Nym (Michael John Casey), Fluellen (Cameron Pow, leek in hand), and the ill-fated Bardolph (Louis Butelli, appearing in his third Richmond show at Folger).
But the onstage execution of that last fella — and I do wonder how many neck-snap sound effects Rasbury had to peruse before finding the right one — drop us back into chill reality.
The war is as real as the complicated people fighting in it, and their own complicated efforts to climb through with minimal damage. Such horrors are enough to grow anyone up.
Which brings us to Zach Appelman, playing Henry. In his Folger debut, the still-young Appelman plays with the confidence of an actor thirty or forty years his senior.
He is at once endlessly tactful and effortlessly captivating, charming us with well-timed glimpses into his mostly-covered well of emotions. Henry sees the evil of war, but also the glory; he makes himself even as he un-makes thousands.
But his heart beats as warm as his sword rings cold. He sneaks in disguise through his camp to read the troops’ spirits, but instead of egoism we see his tender sense of fraternity. He is tasked with wooing Katherine in a single scene, like a speed date, but instead of showmanship, we see his generous attentions tripped up by anxiety, and we are eager that she accept him. Through all this, Appelman strides with aplomb, comfortable and commanding.
Closes March 3, 2013
201 East Capitol Street, SE
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $30 – $68
Wednesdays thru Sundays
It’s only a few seconds before Henry’s equilibrium returns. And in this scene, as in many others, Richmond’s world is tough enough to hold its shape through every twist. From beginning to end, bloody violence sets every life askew, but never do we lose our footing.
Henry V . by William Shakespeare . directed by Robert Richmond . Featuring
Zach Appelman (Henry V), Louis Butelli (Bardolph) , Michael John Casey (Nym), Edward Christian (King of France), Katie deBuys (Katharine), Catherine Flye (Mistress Quickly), Chris Genebach (MacMorris), James Keegan (Pistol), Pomme Koch (Constable of France), Cameron Pow (Fluellen) ,Andrew Schwartz (The Dauphin), Richard Sheridan Willis (Chorus), Jessica Witchger . Production: Tony Cisek (Scenic Designer), Mariah Hale (Costume Designer), Andrew Griffin (Lighting Designer), Michael Rasbury (Sound Designer), Casey Kaleba (Fight Director) and Michele Osherow (Resident Dramaturg). Produced by The Folger Theatre .
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Trey Graham . City Paper
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Mark Dewey . DCMetroTheaterArts
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Mark Dewey . DCMetroTheaterArts