Strong ‘Henry V’ deserves bigger audience

Gordon Jones
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Opening its season on a cloudless, blue-sky evening, Perchance Theatre is the re-branded and reorganized successor to New World Theatre, performing summer Shakespeare on the Endeavor Stage in Cupids.

The new artistic director, Danielle Irvine, kicked off with the triumphalist “Henry V,” a play for which she evidently has something of a soft spot, having previously directed it some years ago for Shakespeare by the Sea on Topsail Beach.

It starts with clerical endorsement of the justice of the young king’s claim to the throne of France as well as England, followed by King Henry’s plucking out traitorous nobles from his retinue.

Then comes the curious sequel. Falstaff, the comic scoundrel featured in the first and second parts of “Henry IV,” whose appearance on the fields of France had been promised in the Epilogue of “2 Henry IV,” is written out of “Henry V,” with a deathbed scene that is reported but not shown.

Did Shakespeare decide to exclude the old ruffian from the hyper-patriotic play? Or had the actor who performed the distinctive role left the company? Probably the latter.

In any event, the underside of English soldiery is not neglected, since the unsavory comic trio of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph (played with gusto by Paul Wilson, Gaston Letourneau and Bruce Brenton) remain to tread the field of Agincourt, where the intrepidity and righteousness of England’s cause is demonstrated by the miraculous victory on St. Crispin’s Day, Oct. 25, 1415, when an English army of 2,000 horse and 13,000 archers, defeated a French army of 60,000 — with a little help from a rain-sodden battlefield.

After this military debacle, the French king (Darryl Hopkins) clings to his throne by approving Henry’s demand for the hand of his daughter and succession to the crown on the French king’s death. But the epilogue to the play reminds us that all came to naught after Henry’s premature death and the accession to the throne of his young and pious son, surrounded by predatory and self-seeking courtiers and advisors.

Win a few, lose a few, you might say.

A distinctive feature of this play is that each of the five acts is prefaced by partisan commentary and narrative voiced by a Chorus, freshly and winningly played by Alison Woodford, costumed in breeches and boots. Her virtuoso performance alone is worth the price of admission.

The heroic king who is celebrated by the French-bashing Chorus is played by youthful-looking Brian Marler, in his third season in Cupids. Marler has fine diction, with great physical presence and authority. And he knows how to be still. His St. Crispin’s Day address is gentle, even wistful, in delivery, but nonetheless compelling.

In the comic dimension of the play, Bruce Brenton is a broad and amiable Bardolph, paired with an attractive Hostess Quickly (Willow Kean), who is younger that usual in appearance. Kean also elegantly plays Princess Katherine. Bardolph’s companions and battle-field buddies, Pistol (Paul Wilson) and Nym (Gaston Letourneau) are physical and irrepressible.

The foppish French ambassador is precisely and amusingly played, with great panache, by Janet MacDonald, cross-gendered in boots and braid. She also serves as companion to the French princess, silently but eloquently chaperoning in the courtship scene.

The nine actors who make up the company shuttle back and forth smoothly and expertly, with fast costume change, representing between them a total of 22 characters and half a dozen French soldiers, with the exception of Marler’s single-role King Henry.

All in all, this is a brisk and strong and entertaining production. The only drawback? An opening-night audience of no more than 55. The bravura performance deserves many more watchers than that.

Directed by Danielle Irvine, with costume design by Melanie Mooney, “Henry V” continues its run, alternating with “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Thursdays through Sundays, until the end of August. Varied times and days of performance may be verified by accessing Perchance Theatre on-line.

Organizations: Sea on Topsail Beach.It, English army

Geographic location: France, England, Agincourt Cupids

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