Update: The run of Henry V has been extended through April 28.
The setup: While we are thrillingly led "once more unto the breach, dear friends" with 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, Guy Roberts, director and star, 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 of Main Street, this glorious panorama of war and its consequences is up close and personal. The mud and blood are right before us, as are those eyes. They glint through the gloom like watch fires.
The execution: Harry, whose dissolute adolescence was memorably chronicled by Shakespeare in his two previous history plays that constitute Henry IV, has now grown 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. 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.
Harry can doubt his claim to the French throne, although legitimized by the fatuous Archbishop of Canterbury, but still order his ragtag troops onward to certain slaughter. Before commencing the siege of Harfleur, he lays out in grisly fashion what will happen to the arrogant French 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 quick to 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.
As director, Roberts is equally adept. 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.
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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 swiftly cuts from English court to French palace, war-scarred trench to a princesses' boudoir, beleaguered town to rain-soaked battlefield (a striking coup de theatre from set designer Ryan McGettigan). We never lose our way, thanks to Shakespeare's scene-setting Chorus that 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 Shakespeare's dense text -- all these diverse characters, high and low, are easily comprehendible. A few standouts: Philip Hays as petty thief Bardolph and the clueless, headstrong Dauphin of France; Sean 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.
The verdict: 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 we all. Shakespeare shows us the world; Main Street acts it out splendidly. The eyes have it. Shakespeare's magnificent war tapestry is on colorful display through April
21 28 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. Purchase tickets online at mainstreettheater.com or call 713-521-6706. $20-$36.