Brave Spirits opened Henry the Fifth this past weekend, and then closed it due to the COVID-19 pandemic with the hope to return in a few weeks. A shame, for a multitude of reasons not limited to the art being presented onstage all too briefly at the Lab at Convergence, because it is another solid production that demonstrates the talent and ambition of the classical company and its players. This, their fourth play in the King Series, ably wraps up the first half of their two-year history cycle.
My party of three – my go-to plus-one and a fellow critic who was there because all his other assigned shows this weekend had already been cancelled – remarked on how unprecedented this situation was and how suddenly it developed. A lot has changed since the flu epidemic of 1918. There’s no roadmap for this. No script.
We spent our evening doing something we previously took for granted: we went to a play, then went out to eat after, and wondered just how long it would take for the world to return to normal enough for us to do this again, facing the prospect of weeks if not months of a world full of concepts we’d heretofore never heard, let alone considered; “social distancing,” “self-quarantine,” “flattening the curve” etc.
We wondered just how arts organizations, large and small, and their artists and staff would weather this, if at all. My social media feeds are full of stories of impending financial disaster from people whose already tenuous economic livelihoods depend upon gigs that have dried up for who knows how long. And also, wonderfully, offers to help from more financially stable friends.
Brave Spirits held on a few days longer than most others, driven apparently by the need to at least get to opening night before closing up shop. This seemed to energize – though in some cases unnerve – the acting company at this evening’s performance, since they knew it might be their last go-round for a while, as well as the audience who likewise knew they might not be going out in public at all, let alone to a play, for a period of time that grows dauntingly longer with every CDC update.
Anywho, onto the play.
Brave Spirits takes what they describe as a critical perspective on Henry… which is to say they perform the play as written. Shakespeare didn’t flinch from the more Machiavellian aspects of Henry’s character, even as subsequent productions tended to gloss them over if not excise them. Henry the Fifth has long been utilized by the British as morale-boosting propaganda, and Laurence Olivier cemented his career on playing Henry, onstage and on film, in service of the war effort during WW2, and they didn’t need all that moral ambiguity mucking up the message.
On the one hand take Henry’s heroic mythos as one of England’s Greatest Kings, but reconcile that with the opening scene in which the bishops bribe him into war with France – where he intended to go anyway – along with his threats to the governor of Harfleur, his stone-faced executions of his conspirators as well as old pal Bardolph, his command to slaughter the captured French during Agincourt, and his dickishness to lowly soldier Michael Williams (who, to his credit, throws it right back into his face). Henry was a great king, which is not exactly the same as a good man.
Henry the Fifth is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. DCTS details and tickets
This is a play as much about public image as about history and battles. The famed prologues, for all their purple prose, are largely PR. Shakespeare’s Henry is a model for modern politics in the way that he doesn’t necessarily say what is true, but what is the most politically expedient, and then sells it with conviction and sincerity to friends, enemies, his kingdom, his would-be queen. Whether it aligns with what’s in his heart is usually irrelevant. Brendan Edward Kennedy gets this, so much so that he’s kept a poker face through three plays, even as young Hal. His prayer soliloquy on the eve of the battle finally lets us in.
Ian Blackwell Rogers’ wild-eyed Fluellen is a highlight, to be certain, as is his sparring with John Stange’s braggart Pistol, as is his sparring with Gary DuBreuil’s quietly sinister Nym. Brianna Goode’s young but wise Peto is also a delight, her knowing soliloquy about her battlemates is delightful, and her fate at Agincourt is the evening’s most chilling and sobering moment.
After two plays carrying drink trays, Nicole Ruthmarie makes the most of the chance to shine as Princess Katherine; the playful interplay with Jaqueline Chenault as her Lady Alice is lovely, and she stares down her conqueror and future husband with a steely reserve. Lisa Hill-Corley also makes a strong impression as the Queen of France, and Duane Richards scores as both the Dauphin and Michael Williams.
Special praise is due for Jenna Burk’s dialect work, the swordplay arranged by Casey Kaleba, and the costuming of Kristen Ahern; indeed the production team throughout the four plays have meshed together well to create a cohesive and consistent look and feel.
And yet… there’s an unevenness to the production that I cannot ascribe simply to the occasional variation in the acting company’s skill set; moments of cleverness and acute insight (the Bishops’ presentation in particular) are balanced by moments of perceptible flatness, as if due to the time crunch of being the fourth of four plays to be rehearsed in a very short amount of time without the opportunity to explore themes or maximize impact.
Some of the actors in the company who heretofore could be relied upon to deliver top-rate performances, even when playing characters carried over from the previous play, seemed… tentative. But again, there’s a lot going on in the world right now, so if they were distracted, there’s a reason. This is the first of the four plays where momentum flagged toward the end, though that can at least partially be attributed to the structure of the play; the scenes after Agincourt are a prolonged denouement.
If you bought a ticket to a subsequent performance of Henry the Fifth, or another show in their 2020 rep, or indeed to any of the now-cancelled shows in the DC area, either take advantage of their rescheduling policies or let them keep the money and call it a donation. Understatement: they need it. And if you know of theatre artists facing destitution, ask for their Venmo.
Be safe, be well, be kind to each other, check in on one another, and hopefully before long we’ll all be once more unto the breach, dear friends. Until then, keep calm and wash your hands.
Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare, directed by Charlene V Smith. Cast: Michael Bannigan Jr, Zack Brewster-Geisz, Jaqueline Chenault, Gary DuBreuil, Brianna Goode, Lisa Hill-Corley, Tom Howley, Brendan Edward Kennedy, Annette Mooney, Duane Richards, Jillian Riti, Ian Blackwell Rogers, Nicole Ruthmarie, John Stange, Joshua Williams. Associate Director/Composer/Music Director: Jordan Friend. Production Manager/Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke. Dramaturg: Claire Kimball. Costume Design: Kristen P Ahern. Set Designer: Megan Holden. Fight Director: Casey Kaleba. Movement Director: Amanda Forstrom. Properties Designer: Caolan Eder. Hair & Makeup Designer: Hannah Fogler. Intimacy Coordinator: Megan Behm. Dialect Coach: Jenna Berk, Assistant Stage Manager: Kirra Sharpe. Production Stage Manager: Jen Katz. Produced by Brave Spirits Theatre. Review by John Geoffrion.
(Note: I directed a production of Henry V in 2007.)