Whenever I'm at a crossroads, theater-wise, and don't know what to make of something, I go to my happy place and think, WWSD. What would Shakespeare do?
When I heard that John Johnston's Classical Theatre Company, in association with the University of Houston, would produce a gender-neutral Henry V, I must admit my eyes began to roll back into my head. Uh oh, a female Henry, one of Shakespeare's most testosterone-filled characters? How would that work? That's when I conjured the Bard. The magnificent prologue, spoken by the Chorus (in this production, a sweet, laid-back David Wald, who would later double as a most sympathetic Alice, nurse to Catherine, princess of France) swept over me:
“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?...Let us on your imaginary forces work...With imagined wing our swift scene flies...suppose that you have seen...play with your fancies...oh, do but think...follow, follow, grapple your minds...work, work your thoughts and therein see...be kind and eke out our performance with your mind...”
Who can argue with that? So I followed his lead, let my imagination run, my eyes returned to their rightful place, and Classical's Henry V came alive, rather thrillingly. It mattered not that former male roles were now played by women. Everyone was switching genders in this production. Dukes were women, maids were men, soldiers were both, yet the glory of Shakespeare transcends all boundaries—color, gender, age, you name them. His theatrical power remains undimmed and cuts right through whatever limited gimmick one might impose.
Classical Theatre's Henry, under Julia Traber's taut direction, keeps its force, majesty, and sheer story-telling fascination. Almost from the beginning, we forget role reversal and luxuriate in this particularly grounded story of warfare and its consequences.
What a grand epic this is, almost cinematic in its telling as it zips between English court, Cheapside tavern, bustling harbor, Paris pomp, war trench, midnight battlefield, besieged ramparts, boudoir love scene. This play moves. It spans both pageant and intimacy, and who but the master playwright would write a scene almost entirely in French (Act III's delightfully audacious “lesson scene” where lady-in-waiting Alice teaches princess Catherine the English names of the parts of the body).
After a dissolute adolescence memorably chronicled by Shakespeare in his two previous history plays that comprise Henry IV, Harry has matured into a formidable yet untried English monarch. He's a mash of contradictions: 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.
Judiciously, Classical has edited this sprawling play, at its time a great panorama of contemporary Elizabethan life, into more manageable shape to comfortably encompass two hours; it speeds along, so no intrinsic harm done. There are so many characters in this tale, from marshals and prelates, tosspots and wenches, to army generals and kingly presences, that Henry himself (a stoic, magisterial Bree Welch) gets a bit slighted until the play gets fully going, but by the second half, her portrait of the unyielding martial monarch comes into much clearer focus.
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Unfortunately, we never see the former glint of wild Prince Hal, the good friend of dissolute Falstaff (who memorably dies offstage) along with his band of merrie men. There's no youthful braggadocio in him/her, no trace of former wildness, no hint of abandonment. Welch gives us a formidable battle commander, an ardent yet awkward lover, and a skillful diplomat, but there's little humor and scant warmth. With her hair piled artfully around her crown and dressed in costumer Macy Perrone's distressed grunge of red leather jacket and skin-tight jeans, she's an eye-catching Montrose butch, but royalty does not yet become her. Welch has a prodigious pedigree in Shakespeare performance, and, while the words come trippingly off her tongue, she's too closed-in and tight. Is she trying too hard to be a guy?
The others in the cast, playing a multitude of roles, have an easier time of it. Lyndsay Sweeney revels in hotheaded Irishman MacMorris; Andrew Love blazes forth hot-tempered Welsh Fluellen; Courtney Lomelo dotes on the pompous Dauphin; Christina Keefe relays Falstaff's demise with appropriate wryness; Zac Kelty purrs burry Scotsman Jamy; Lindsay Ehrhardt bounces nicely as cowardly Nym; Shunte Lofton radiates sweet sensuality as perhaps not-so-innocent Catherine, princess of France.
Played out in front of Liz Freese's secondhand clothing store set with shelves of knickknacks and racks of used clothes – actors swiftly choose what props they need or grab an old coat for their new character – Henry V is swathed in downtown grunge. There's a slight musty smell of '80s theater, but then again there's always Shakespeare's glorious sound to keep it more current and relevant than any other play in memory.
Henry V continues through November 1 at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose. For information, call 713-
713-963-9665 or visit classicaltheatre.org. $10-$25.