Well, since you're perspiring anyway in the oven-like heat at Miller Outdoor, how about the sweat of battle to keep at it? In their most completely realized production in seasons, the Houston Shakespeare Festival delivers a muscular, affecting and ultimately stirring production of Shakespeare's mighty Plantagenet pageant Henry V.
Like some finely wrought medieval tapestry, Henry V is crafted in bold strokes, primary colors and intricate detail. Almost cinematically, Shakespeare zooms through a panoply of locations: grand, kingly courts, seaport towns, squalid taverns, mud and corpse-strewn battlefields, the boudoir of the Princess of France, never once losing the thread of his main story. As our imagination is widened by this panorama, this cast of thousands, Henry comes more and more into focus.
This is Henry's story, how a dissolute youth, forever whoring and drinking, summons up the courage, the grit, the glory to become a king. He's no saint and is as bloodthirsty for revenge as any antique barbarian, but he's a genuine inspiration for his troops, who would rather be anywhere else than fighting the French, which is where Henry has led his rag-tag army in his quest to claim France's throne for his own.
He has his work cut out. The French snub and mock him, rousing his ire with their ambassadorial gift of tennis balls; the church surreptitiously wants to send him out of the country so he doesn't reclaim its own lands and property; England is wracked by partisan division; his peasant troops don't want to fight. But the young king rises spectacularly above all the squabbles and impediments. His saving grace is his love for England and the recognition of the heavy duty that has been laid upon his head.
Shakespeare, as usual, paints him in multi-colors. He's vain, petulant, sly and cunning, raffish and bold, still young and innocently ardent. It's a beauty of a portrait, and young Brendan Marshall-Rashid, with his corona of curls and lithe body, embodies this untried king with deftness, agility and intelligence. He can swing a broadsword like Thor, but melt the heart of proud Katherine with sweet protestations of love. He exhorts his men prior to the bloody battle of Harfleur (the famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends...God for Harry! England, and St. George!”) with an electric fervor that reverberated through the outdoor arena. I think the audience would have marched with him if asked. And his equally famous “St. Crispian's Day” speech, in which he cannily implores his men to remain to receive even more glory afterward (“The fewer men, the greater share of honor”), was pricked through with all manner of subtlety and craft. His is a youthful king, with glistening shades of prior Prince Harry not too far out of sight, but now a Henry wise, responsible, and resolute.
The entire cast seemed inspired by him, and the familiar faces from Much Ado (shown in repertory this year with Henry) were in their element. Maybe the testosterone that swirls through the drama awakened them more than the rom-com Ado, but they all shine here. Especially potent: Andrew Garrett's Pistol, who sees his friends butchered on the battlefield and vows to return to England and get his revenge by stealing; Patrick Poole's fiery and wordy Fluellen, Henry's most capable Welsh captain; Susie Parr's nimble and sexy Katherine of France; David Huynh's brash and untested Dauphin; Harry McEnerny's stalwart Exeter; Jay Mast's comically pragmatic MacMorris; Kat Cordes's twinklingly cool lady-in-waiting Alice; H.R. Bradford's weary and war-torn King of France.
Director Lenny Banovez overlays Henry with contemporary flourish, giving the piece an apocalyptic gloss with Jonathan Middents's scenic design of skeletal scaffolding and constant fog; Leah Smith's goth costumes; and Clint Allen's crisp, vibrant lighting. The war scenes are staged magnificently, held just long enough to be believable and stylized enough to be theatrical. Cannons boom, lights flash and lethal arrows slice the air from a trio of longbows.
Henry V, one of Shakespeare's brightest lights, glows anew under HSF and the sterling performance from Marshall-Rashid and company. The hell of war is front and center, but so are unwavering patriotism, love of country, the thrill of camaraderie, the craftsmanship of diplomacy, the art of making love. Shakespeare doesn't stint on the horror of life, but he doesn't stint on its eternal glories either. He's not the greatest playwright in the world for nothing, you know.
Henry V. ; August 3, 5, 7. All performances begin at 8:15 p.m. Miller Outdoor Theatre, 6000 Hermann Park Drive. For information, call 281-373-3386 or visit milleroutdoortheatre.com. Free.
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