Monday, September 24, 2012

Henry V - Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon

What Manner Of A Man Is This?

Henry V
is playing at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Elizabethan outdoor Theatre in Ashland, Oregon at 8pm (through October 12).  It’s now in its final weeks, so you must hurry if you want to catch it.  And best bring a sweater, as the nights are cool, and a cushion, as the seats are hard. 

Henry, in my opinion, is probably the best written of the Shakespearean History plays.  It is also based on a true incident, where England sought to regain territory they felt belonged to them, in France.  The English troops, vastly out-numbered, finally won out over them, on their own French soil.

And, to solidify the alliance, Henry (John Tufts) marries the King’s daughter, Katherine (Brooke Parks).  It would be a short-lived victory though, because, as we know, the French did regain their land back.  And that, in a nutshell, is the groundwork for the play.

The production at OSF is a stripped-down model of the story.  This is not a bad thing, as it allows the actors to relay the plot in more of a storytelling fashion.  And the actors in this production, for the most part, rise to the occasion.  Even the Chorus, normally played by one person, is shared by many in the cast.  This device lends well to the “black-box” approach to this play.  And the music, played deftly by Kelvin Underwood, underscores the many moods of the show.

The costumes and settings are stark and the pacing is quick, moving the play along rapidly to its conclusion.  A very nice special effect, the rain, will please audiences.  And the capable cast deals beautifully in playing several roles.  This is something most productions at OSF pride themselves on.

OSF is very open to cross-gender and cross-cultural casting.  And they have a deaf actor (Howie Seago) playing, with ease, the Duke of Exeter, Henry’s uncle.  Bravo, OSF, for giving a platform to all artists in any role!

Much of the strength of this story lies with the actor playing Henry.  This is the only snag in which the show stumbles a bit at times.  John Tufts, as King Henry, has some good moments, e.g. the famous Crispin Day speech is well spoken and his comedy-of-manners scene with Katherine is very amusing and touching.  But he fails, at times, to give the story its sense of urgency that must be in every leader, if they are to rally the troops.

Henry is by no means a saint.  He abandons his faithful friend, Falstaff, who, in essence, dies of a broken heart because of this betrayal by his ole buddy, Prince Hal.  The King also must discipline another drinking buddy, Bardolph (Brent Hinkley) by strangling him for theft.  And he must marry a woman he’s never met, simply to cement the relationship between two countries.

A mark of a great leader, perhaps, but, not necessarily, of a good man.  He does cruel things for noble reasons.  Henry is a complex creature and this turmoil must show through.  Mr. Tufts only occasionally rises to the occasion.

But there are some really outstanding performances and scenes.  In particular, Christine Albright as the Boy, proving, once again, “there are no small parts…” She shines in her few scenes, giving the play its needed dash of energy.  Ms. Parks as Katherine is wonderfully funny in her scenes where she is trying to master the English language.

And Judith-Marie Bergan as her attendant, Alice (and also Mistress Quickly) polishes her acting chops in these two diverse roles.  U. Jonathan Toppo as Pistol, Cristofer Jean as Montjoy and, especially, Daisuke Tsuji, as the Dauphin, are pretty amazing to watch, also.

The play, directed by Joseph Haj, is presented in a streamlined fashion, allowing for his strong cast to carry the burden of the story.  Too often the pageantry of a production gets in the way of the story.  This is not the case here, as Mr. Haj weaves this ambitious tale with stunning simplicity.

For tickets and membership information call 1-800-219-8161 and for more information on their shows contact their website at  Tell them Dennis sent you.

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