Saturday, January 10, 2009

Review - Henry V - The Acting Company - 5 Stars


A word tossed around so regularly in the first half of The Acting Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” that I was shamed into looking it up immediately upon arriving home.

Powerful. Mighty. Potent.

That about sums it up.

I’d been looking forward to seeing this already, since I’d never seen a live production of “Henry V” before - just one of the movie versions.

Then I learned Matthew Amendt was Henry, and I was looking forward to it even more. Ever since first seeing him in action as one of the regular rotating ensemble of Thirst Theater, I’ve been impressed with his acting chops. Seeing him in roles at the Guthrie both large (Nick, the narrator of “The Great Gatsby”) and not so large (as one of the cast of the great, and criminally underseen, “The Home Place”) in the time between only reinforced my admiration. I thought, “Let him get his hooks into King Harry. Wow. Stand back, everybody.”

That about sums it up.

But not quite. Director Davis McCallum has assembled an amazing ensemble, all of them playing multiple roles without skipping a beat or confusing the audience. They had us laughing one minute, crying the next, then throwing in some goosebumps just to top things off. They are - alphabetically, because I’m blown away by them all in equal measure - Freddy Arsenault, Georgia Cohen, Kelley Curran, Rick Ford, Andy Groteluschen, Carrie Kawa, Robert Michael McClure, William Sturdivant, Samuel Taylor, Chris Thorn, and Sonny Valicenti. They all took a complicated tale with an epic cast of characters and made this story of a young king of England leading an outnumbered army into battle with France not just easy to follow but remarkably compelling.

They were, of course, mightily aided by the design team. A stirring sound design by Scott W. Edwards, with music composition and direction from Victor Zupanc. Deceptively simple costumes by Anita Yavich with a dash of color over gray base with a lot of quite versatile zippers. The lighting design by Michael Chybowski often felt like the beating heart of the piece. And if the lights were the heart, then the guts were most definitely the set - a semicircle of wood designed by Neil Patel with doors opening and closing and sliding around on two levels, giving the story a lot of places from which to keep popping out and surprising the audience from all directions. Add to that some rather sturdy rolling tables and steps of metal and wood and the thing just kept barreling along like a mighty river. The power of the battles also owes a great deal to John Spies’ fight direction.

It never ceases to amaze me that in the right hands - like those of The Acting Company - Elizabethan English becomes not just easily understood, but a vibrant living thing. It’s a pleasure to listen to something operating just a little above the level of the English with which I tend to muddle through my days.

If there’s a more intimidating thing for a playwright struggling with a new script to sit in a theater and watch than a production of “Henry V” like this, I can’t think of it.

Thankfully, there’s also nothing more inspiring.

O for a muse of fire, indeed.

For someone suffering from a little theater fatigue right now, a production like this is just the kind of jolt I needed to remind me why I love it so.

Which is why I joined my fellow audience members in applauding long after the lights came up until the actors all came out, sheepishly, to take another bow, so we could stand and thank them properly.

(Guys, add a light cue. You had over two and a half hours. You don’t just get to walk off after Shakespeare’s finished. We intend to applaud you for at least a couple of minutes. You earned it, and we’d like to give it to you.)

When you can overcome my general queasiness these days with the concept of people invoking God on their side in a war, and just sweep me up in the genuine earnestness of it all, well, then I guess you've got something...

Powerful. Mighty. Potent.


That about sums it up.

The Acting Company (kicking off their tour here, visiting from New York) - Henry V - The Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater - now through February 1, 2009

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