While we are thrillingly led "once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" in Main Street Theater's sterling production of Shakespeare's rousing yet ironic flag-waver Henry V, look also unto the young king's eyes. It's there where you'll find the play.
As the untested, newly crowned heir to the throne, director and star Guy Roberts (who was so incandescent as evil incarnate in last season's Richard III, another co-production shared by his Prague Shakespeare Company and Main Street) has eyes that can pierce through you with a steely unconcern, weep with you or wink knowingly as if you're an unindicted co-conspirator. In the intimate playing area at Main Street, this glorious panorama of war and its consequences are up close and personal. The mud and blood are right in our face, as are those eyes. They glint through the gloom like watch fires.
After a dissolute adolescence memorably chronicled by Shakespeare in his two previous history plays that make up Henry IV, Harry has matured into a formidable yet untried English monarch. He's a mash of contradictions as only the great Bard could conceive: rash and bold, clever and tricky, heartless and sympathetic, brutal and gentle. Elemental, he's the very model of a king. Shakespeare's humanism prevents quick judgment; he presents Harry warts and all, as he does with all the other characters. Shakespeare doesn't just wave the flag with patriotic fervor, he shreds it, too. Along with pomp comes low-life cowardice; sweet talk erupts into rage; might is the flip side of stupidity.
Through April 21. Main Street Theater, 2540Times Blvd., 713-521-6706. $20-$36.
Guy Roberts: Into the Breech
Before commencing the siege of Harfleur, Harry lays out in grisly fashion what the French can expect if they don't capitulate: "[L]ook to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by the silver beards, and their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls; your naked infants spitted upon pikes." He sues for peace with rampant barbarism. Compact and always on the move, Roberts captures Harry's paradoxes with gleeful flair. He's virile and blustery, a master diplomat, a simple wooer and valiant warrior. He loves his men, but will not spare them in pursuit of his own glory. One of Shakespeare's most complex personalities, Harry springs to magnificent life under Roberts's skillful choices.
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Roberts is equally adept as director. The mighty pageant flows like the Thames, and is given an overall wash that resembles Japanese anime meets Mad Max: black combat outfits with splashes of red in bandannas and arm bands, although Harry's velvet coat has Elizabethan shoulders and ruff cuffs. Later, red takes center stage with the swathes of blood that drench the battle-weary soldiers. The effete French wear blue vests, a deft touch from costumer Margaret Crowley. Some soldiers carry medieval axes, some automatic weapons. The mashup gives the production a bleak, apocalyptic tone. The finest touch is the addition of two taiko musicians, Khechar Boorla and Nicholas Hill, who thump their great drums and use other eerie percussion effects to enhance the warlike, end-of-the-world mood.
Shakespeare's history play is epic, almost cinematic as it cuts from English court to French palace, war-scarred trench to princess's boudoir, beleaguered town to rain-soaked battlefield (a striking coup de theatre effect from set designer Ryan McGettigan). We never lose our way, thanks to Shakespeare's scene-setting Chorus, which implores us to use our imaginations: "Think when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth; for 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings."
The splendid cast, who all double and triple up roles, make poetry out of the aromatic, dense text; all the diverse characters they play, high and low, are swiftly comprehended. A few standouts: Philip Hays as petty thief Bardolph and the clueless, headstrong Dauphin of France; Seán Patrick Judge as wily Archbishop and burr-besotted Scotsman Jamy; Celeste Roberts as bawdy Mistress Quickly and comic lady-in-waiting Alice; Crystal O'Brien as petulant herald Montjoy; Jessica Boone as spirited Davy and English-challenged Katherine, Princess of France; Rutherford Cravens as opportunistic Pistol; Mark Roberts as hotheaded Irishman Macmorris; and Bill Roberts as loyal Welshman Fluellen. The panoply of medieval life is chiseled as finely as a Gothic icon.
War is hell, Shakespeare shouts in Henry V, but a hell replete with life. Kings are good, kings are bad, kings can be mediocre. Patriotism has within it courage and cowardice, as do soldiers, as do all of us. Shakespeare shows us the world; Main Street acts it out splendidly. The eyes have it.