Review: Get Your Winter Shakespeare Fix With This (Almost) All Female Production of ‘Henry V’
Thomas Burns Scully
I like reviewing Shakespeare plays, because I get to skip writing the most boring paragraph of the review. The paragraph where I explain the plot. Because either the reader already knows the plot, or can easily Google a much more succinct synopsis than I could ever write. I also don’t like reviewing Shakespeare plays, because I know how it’s going to end. So, more than almost any show I’m likely to see in the city, the incentive to watch is in how its told. The show depends on its aesthetic and the commitment of its actors, and that worries me. Because that makes Shakespeare an auteur’s medium. And most directors aren’t auteurs. So that’s why I don’t like reviewing Shakespeare. With that in mind, I’m now about to take a look at Rogue and Peasant Players’ production of ‘Henry V’.
The story of ‘Henry V’… is on Wikipedia. We just talked about this. A King, a war, French people, death, “Once more in to the breach!”, St. Crispin’s day, you get the gist. Rogue and Peasant Players’ production stages it in a deliberately theatrical fashion, actively acknowledging the audience and the reality of actors on stage, playing directly in to the chorus’ speeches. This comes off well for the most part and is enjoyably direct, without being too distracting. Their cast is also largely female, with almost totally gender-flipped casting. This doesn’t lend anything significant to the show thematically, but also doesn’t distract from the action. The fact that these are women playing male parts is never distinctly addressed or made light of, and the female actors play their parts just as well as a male actor would. From a design perspective things are also fine, mostly found-objects and bedsheets, with a few specific touches added for comedy (modeling balloons are used as swords in certain scenes for amusing effect). On the whole, the show looks interesting, without being especially remarkable. And that might be my final summation of it.
Everything about this ‘Henry V’ works. It all hangs together, the actors know what they’re doing, an aesthetic has been committed to, a world has been created, you can watch and experience Shakespeare’s play without impediment. And that’s it. This show doesn’t reinvent the story, it doesn’t challenge it and break new observational or theatrical ground, it just tells the story well. This is wholly commendable and is by no means a failing grade, but if you have seen ‘Henry V’ before, this iteration is not going to change you. Nothing about it is distinctly bad nor riotously amazing, with two notable exceptions. First is the music. The music of the show is a bit drab. Not out and out deplorable, but not particularly engaging either. On one side of the stage has been erected an improvised, hanging glass-bottle marimba with various tub drums placed around it. Throughout the show odd glass notes and war drums are struck on this set-up, but rarely does it pack a strong percussive hit or entertain conjecture of a battle. At its best, it is un-distracting, at its worst, it is distracting. It’s nowhere near enough to kill the action, but it’s the only distinct let-down an audience member will experience in the show. The second exception are the scenes with the French speaking characters. Which were so good, we will start a new paragraph to discuss them.
Something about director Kelly Monroe Johnston’s staging of the scenes between Katharine and her lady-in-waiting Alice is beyond charming, and creates a brilliant stage rom-com that seems strangely adrift amidst all the scenes of battle and woe. Alejandra Venancio (Katherine) and Dee Dee Popper (Alice) have impeccable chemistry that, if anything, seems even stronger when they are communicating in French. The privacy and silliness of their scenes together illicit nothing but pure delight and are probably the best thing in the show. That said, running a close second is the scene between these two and Brenna Yeary as Henry. Henry’s half-translated, half-misunderstood courtship of the French princess is a marvel of stagecraft that you simply don’t want to end. They briefly elevate the show from solid and dependable to excruciatingly good.
And that is essentially all I have to say. This is a good retelling of a familiar story that occasionally jumps from good to amazing, but most of the time is just good. Rogue and Peasant Players are to be commended on their work with decent audience attendance, which it is now up to you, dear reader, to provide. If you’re looking for your Shakespeare fix and can’t wait till the Summer to see it in the park, then you’d be well disposed to head to Access Theatre. It’s good actresses, and a couple of good actors, doing good work under good direction. Go see it.
The Rogue and Peasant Players production ‘Henry V’ runs at the Access Theatre until February 14th. Tickets start at $18, for more info see rogueandpeasantplayers.com
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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