Theatre Mirror Reviews - "THE HENRIAD: Richard II; Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; Henry V" till 19 December

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Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi

Trinity Repertory is currently producing in repertory the New England theatre event of the year, let alone season: THE HENRIAD, a three-evening cycle of Shakespeare’s RICHARD II, HENRY IV (Parts 1 & 2) and HENRY V with three different directors, using the same actors and set design, putting his or her stamp on three equally different kings. Each play can stand on its own with RICHARD II being a poetic tragedy, HENRY IV, a comedy-melodrama and HENRY V, an excursion into pageantry and patriotism; with Trinity Rep linking them together, its HENRIAD is, despite some reservations, a triple-crown winner.

"THE HENRIAD: RICHARD II"

by William Shakespeare

directed by Kevin Moriarty

King Richard II … Brian McEleney
Queen Isabel … Angela Brazil
Henry Bolingbroke … Timothy Crowe
John of Gaunt … Anne Scurria
Duke of York … Fred Sullivan, Jr.
Duchess of York … Rachael Warren
Duchess of Gloucester … Barbara Meek
Thomas Mowbray … David Hanbury

KING RICHARD’S ALLIES:

Duke of Aumerle … Noah Brody
Bagot … Joanna Cole
Bushy … Stephen Thorne
Green … Ben Steinfeld
Bishop of Carlisle … Drew Battles
Abbott of Westminster … David Hanbury
Scroop … Rachael Warren
Earl Salisbury … Barbara Meek

HENRY BOLINGBROKE’S ALLIES:

Henry Percy (Earl of Northumberland … William Damkoehler
Harry Percy (Hotspur) … Mauro Hantman
Lord Ross … Drew Battles
Lord Willoughby … Miriam Silverman
Lady attending the Queen … Miriam Silverman
Keeper … David Hanbury
Gardeners … David Hanbury; Ben Steinfeld
Groom … Joanna Cole
Captain … David Hanbury
Servants to Exton ... Noah Brody; Stephen Thorne

" THE HENRIAD: HENRY IV, Parts 1 and 2"

by William Shakespeare

directed by Amanda Dehnert

King Henry IV (Bolingbroke) … Timothy Crowe
Prince Henry (Hal), later Henry V … Stephen Thorne
John, Prince of Lancaster … Angela Brazil
Earl of Westmoreland … Drew Battles
Sir Walter Blunt … David Hanbury
Lord Chief Justice … Noah Brody

THE REBELS’ PARTY:

Thomas Percy (Earl of Worcester) … Anne Scurria
Henry Percy (Earl of Northumberland) … William Damkoehler
Harry Percy (Hotspur) … Mauro Hantman
Lady Percy (Kate) … Rachael Warren
Sir Edmund Mortimer … Ben Steinfeld
Owen Glendower … Barbara Meek
Sir Richard Vernon … Noah Brody
Archbishop of York … Brian McEleney
Sir Michael … Ben Steinfeld
Douglas … Miriam Silverman

THE TAVERN AT EASTCHEAP:

Sir John Falstaff … Fred Sullivan, Jr.
Ned Poins … Miriam Silverman
Bardolph … Brian McEleney
The Boy (Peto) … Joanna Cole
Davy … Ben Steinfeld
Hostess (Mistress Quickly) … Barbara Meek
Doll Tearsheet … Angela Brazil
Pistol … William Damkoehler
Francis … Rachael Warren

"THE HENRIAD: HENRY V"

by William Shakespeare
directed by Oskar Eustis

THE KING’S PARTY:

King Henry V … Stephen Thorne
John, Duke of Bedford … Angela Brazil
Duke of Gloucester … Noah Brody
Duke of Exeter … Fred Sullivan, Jr.
Earl of Westmoreland … Drew Battles
Salisbury ... Miriam Silverman
Archbishop of Canterbury … Brian McEleney
Bishop of Ely … Barbara Meek

TRAITORS:

Thomas Grey … Joanna Cole
Richard of Cambridge … Noah Brody
Lord Scroop … Mauro Hantman

THE TAVERN AT EASTCHEAP

Bardolph … Brian McEleney
Nym … Timothy Crowe
Pistol … William Damkoehler
Hostess (Mistress Quickly) … Barbara Meek
Boy … Joanna Cole

ROYAL COURT OF FRANCE:

King Charles VI … Timothy Crowe
Queen Isabel … Barbara Meek
The Dauphin … Mauro Hantman
Princess Katherine … Rachael Warren
Alice, attending Lady … Miriam Silverman

ENGLISH ARMY:

Fluellen … Ben Steinfeld
MacMorris … Miriam Silverman
Jamy … David Hanbury
Gower … Angela Brazil
Erpingham … Barbara Meek
Michael Williams … Anne Scurria
John Bates … Noah Broady

FRENCH ARMY:

Constable … William Damkoehler
Orleans … Noah Brody
Bourbon … Drew Battles
Montjoy … David Hanbury
Burgundy … Brian McEleney
Governor of Harfleur … Barbara Meek

Trinity Repertory is currently producing in repertory the New England theatre event of the year, let alone season: THE HENRIAD, a three-evening cycle of Shakespeare’s RICHARD II, HENRY IV (Parts 1 & 2) and HENRY V with three different directors, using the same actors and set design, putting his or her stamp on three equally different kings. Each play can stand on its own with RICHARD II being a poetic tragedy, HENRY IV, a comedy-melodrama and HENRY V, an excursion into pageantry and patriotism; with Trinity Rep linking them together, its HENRIAD is, despite some reservations, a triple-crown winner.

Shakespeare’s histories can be confusing to those unfamiliar with England’s monarchy (especially when the Bard is free with facts and dates) and RICHARD II, the first play in the cycle, drops the viewer right into the action. There is a valuable introduction to the cycle: the play THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK which exists as an Elizabethan prompt book dating from 1592 --- its author, unknown (though argued to be Shakespeare, himself); its ending, missing (the script can be located on the Internet and there was an excellent student production at Boston’s Emerson College, two years ago). The title character is one Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of England (i.e. he rules the land until the appointed sovereign comes of age). Thomas, along with his brothers John of Gaunt (Duke of Lancaster) and Edmund of Langley (Duke of York) are concerned for England’s future as their nephew, Richard, son of the late King Edward and the heir apparent, has fallen under the sway of flatterers --- Greene, Bagot, Bushy and Scroope --- and already shows signs of being an unsuitable ruler, living in luxury by squeezing his countrymen dry. The clash between the beloved, plain-spoken Thomas and the hated, flamboyant Richard forms the crux of the play. Richard seizes the crown and imprisons his uncle where he is murdered in his cell; Emerson’s added-on ending had Richard seeing the errors of his ways (!), banishing his flatterers and being properly crowned as King.

In RICHARD II, Richard continues his excesses, three of his flatterers remain in favor --- including Greene who was slain in THOMAS OF WOODSTOCK --- and Thomas’ murder still casts a shadow on Richard’s professed innocence; the Dukes of Lancaster and York continue to watch and comment from the sidelines. When Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke challenges Thomas Mowbray, one of the King’s favorites, to a duel on grounds that Mowbray is Thomas’ murderer, Richard banishes both men from England; upon Gaunt’s death, Richard seizes Bolingbroke’s estates to pay for a war against Ireland, thus drawing the ranks for or against his sovereignty. While Richard is a-battle, Bolingbroke successfully invades England. Richard reluctantly passes the crown to Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) and is imprisoned and murdered by an ambitious nobleman seeking favor with the new King. Henry IV denies having any hand in the murder and begins his own reign under an ominous cloud.

In HENRY IV, Parts 1 & 2, Henry faces a civil war led by Harry Percy (aka “Hotspur”), the son of the Earl of Northumberand, a former ally who helped to win the crown for him; Hotspur leads the rebellion for (a) not being satisfied with his family’s share of the spoils and (b) avowing that Henry had supplanted Richard by force, thus going against the divine right of kings (ah, how men refashion rulers into saints and martyrs to justify their causes!). Henry is also concerned that his own heir apparent, Henry (aka “Hal”) prefers to carouse and thieve with a fat old knight, Sir John Falstaff, and his cronies rather than assume his princely duties; in his father’s eyes, Hal comes up short when compared to the fearless Hotspur but like a true hero, Hal’s innate nobility comes through: he slays Hotspur in battle, is given the crown and his father’s blessing on the latter’s deathbed, becoming King Henry V, and severs all ties with Falstaff even though he breaks the old man’s heart.

HENRY V begins with the Archibishop of Canterbury advising the young ruler on the advantages of invading France (an invasion to be largely financed by the Church to gain Henry’s support against Parliament); a timely insult from the Dauphin in the form of tennis balls (symbolizing Henry’s dissolute days) prompts Henry to declare war on France; his grim but just determination is foreshadowed by his condemning to death three members of his inner circle as would-be assassins on his own life. Marching into France alongside Henry are former members of Falstaff’s circle --- the fat knight, now being dead --- their low-comedy (mis)adventures contrasting with the shining idealism of their king’s campaign. Despite overwhelming odds, the English are victorious on the fields of Agincourt and paves the way for Henry to woo and win Princess Katharine, daughter of the French king. A one-person Chorus, commenting throughout the evening, concludes that for all of Henry’s victories, the future Henry VI shall lose France and make England bleed once again through mismanagement.

What Dickens is to the novel, Shakespeare is to the stage with THE HENRIAD’s rich portrait gallery that ranges from the trio of kings to Falstaff and his rogues at Eastcheap down to the boy Peto shivering out on the battlefield and Isabel’s lady-in-waiting, owning but a handful of phrases, who will gladly weep if it will please her sorrowing Queen. So many strolls, strides and marches through so many avenues of the human mind, heart and soul; so many famous epigrams and speeches!

“We were not born to sue, but to command.” (R2, I, i)

“How long a time lies in one little word! / Four lagging winters and four wanton springs / End in a word: such is the breath of kings.” (R2, I, iii)

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle … This happy breed of men, this little world, / This precious stone set in the silver sea…” (R2, II, i)

“For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings…” (R4, III, ii)

”I have been studying how I may compare / This prison where I live unto the world…” (R4, V, v)

“What is honour? A word. What is in that word honor? what is that honour? air.” (H4, Part 1, IV, ii)

“The better part of valour is discretion; in the which better part I have saved my life.” (H4, Part 1, V, iv)

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” (H4, III, i)

“We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” (H4, III, ii)

“Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” (H5, Prologue)

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead … Follow your spirit, and upon this charge / Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” (H5, III, i)

“This day is call’d the feast of Crispian: / He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, / Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named, / And rouse him at the name of Crispian.” (H5, IV, iii)

… and so on. And Shakespeare takes great pains to balance the scales: Richard II, so abhorrent in his rashness, comes to a belated humanity just before his murder; the somber Henry IV is played off the jovial Falstaff; Henry V could be seen as the noblest of English manhood or as a shrewd, conniving statesman; war is a duty and an honor but also as a sure way to a brutish death. (RICHARD II is composed mostly of verse which adds to its stylized coolness; the HENRYs may also soar but are closer written --- and performed --- to the cadences of everyday speech.)

A trinity of kings; a Trinity of directors. Kevin Moriarty has directed RICHARD II in Elizabethan style; Amanda Dehnert and Oskar Eustis set their HENRY ensembles in modern times, poised somewhere between the UK and the USA. Michael McGarty’s planked stage enhanced by the theatre’s exposed back wall is wooden O, enough, as, in all good Shakespeare productions, the actors themselves become the mise en scene and William Lane has garbed them in dozens of functional costumes, heavy on the earth colors, save for Richard II’s snow-white prison gown. Mr. Moriarty’s RICHARD II keeps its ambivalent king at a stately distance --- when Richard dies, he takes the old order with him --- whereas the HENRYs reach out to yank their audiences into the front lines. Like two flavors that shouldn’t blend but do, the productions’ styles compliment rather than contradict each other.

RICHARD II is, at heart, a one-man show --- Richard’s --- with Bolingbroke, Northumberland and Hotspur mere embryos and Hal, Falstaff and the clowns sitting it out in the wings; Mr. Moriarty’s production is the least satisfying in THE HENRIAD for Brian McEleney’s king is a fading exquisite with hand grafted to hip and lofty looks descending from a Gielgud profile; his declaiming voice is squeezed dry of music, leaving him to bellow and snarl in dry, rustling tones. Richard, for all his waywardness, must convey that under better guidance he might have been a better king and Shakespeare is so careful at shifting the audience’s sympathy in his favor by (a) keeping Richard’s role in Thomas’ murder under wraps (remember Thomas’ murder?); (b) recasting Richard as the underdog when a nation turns against him; (c) letting Richard develop a heartbeat through his suffering in prison; and (d) giving Richard beautiful speeches for every occasion --- this is a poet-king ruling over an early nation of shopkeepers, not a Malvolio dropped into King for a Day. Instead, Mr. Moriarty opens with Thomas’ ritualized murder, clearly implying that Richard is its mastermind and Mr. McEleney’s portrayal remains unchanged down to Richard’s own sacrificial death that leaves him steeping in a sunken vat of blood ever-present at center stage (it makes for a messy curtain call). Mr. McEleney fares better in the HENRYs as the comical Bardolph, sporting a bulbous rubber nose, and as two plotting Archbishops where his schoolmaster inflections capture, mount and label those characters within seconds.

Ms. Denhert’s deconstructed production of WEST SIDE STORY proved stillborn yet her commedia-style approach to HENRY IV results in a lusty, kicking babe which goes to show that not all directorial visions work for all entertainments. Her HENRY is played with the houselights on for much of the evening; her actors declaiming many of the stage directions along with the prose. The lighting makes sense, after awhile --- the Trinity audience could be outdoors in bright daylight --- and the declaimed directions act as a running Who’s Who; despite its contemporary slant, Ms. Denhert’s production comes off more Elizabethan than Mr. Moriarty’s. Ms. Denhert does have her moments when she waves “hello” to the audience: a female Poins, apparently having an affair with Hal; a Nixon mask being worn for a moonlit robbery; and, especially, the battle scenes which are staged as bouts of arm wrestling atop a table while others rhythmically pound the floor in a circle --- this is the third period piece I’ve seen in the past month to offer swordplay without swordplay and wonder if this is the newest Shakespearean trend, i.e. getting around the fight scenes using actors who have not mastered stage combat. Granted, stylization when properly used can be effective shortcuts and Ms. Denhert’s battles and subsequent executions are clever-clever, especially when blood is involved, but the effect is similar to watching a ballet with its female dancers never having learned to stand en pointe --- a performance can still come of it but that certain something is missing. Last year, the New York Lincoln Center production of Parts 1 and 2 clocked in at 4½ hours; Ms. Denhert’s production comes down to 3 hours with Part 2 as Act Three; other than Falstaff & Co. not showing up as much as before, no harm is done to the plotline.

Mr. Eustis’ production of HENRY V is similar in style and tone save for the houselights being dimmed once again, the throne --- formerly on display at far-stage right --- banished as the new king is a man of the people, and the battle scenes are performed with machine guns being used as quarterstaffs. Mr. Eustis, too, has his indulgences: a Nym who imitates Robert DeNiro in the film TAXI DRIVER; Pistol playing an air guitar and a Beatles song being sung just before the battle’s dawn; the Welsh officer Fluellen recast as a Southern cracker with a fondness for ten-dollar phrases; but there is also a lovely evocation of a ship in full sail and a startling moment when the ensemble rips planks from the stage floor to simulate war’s destruction. This HENRY, too, has been trimmed, the most noticeable change being Pistol’s speech about returning to England to resume thieving now coming after he has shot three French prisoners under order rather than his being humiliated by Fluellen and forced to eat the very leek he has mocked; he who had previously been a coward and a braggart now becomes a disillusioned war veteran, instead. It works this way but, to quote Kurt Weill, it works the other way, as well….

One should attend THE HENRIAD in proper sequence, of course, and all of it, if possible, for, like Mr. McEleney, above, some of the protean actors get by in some roles but are golden in others and should be given their all-around due, for this is a true ensemble, composed mainly of long-time Trinity players who, by and large, are able to sing these scores no matter what key their directors hand them. William Damkoehler and Anne Scurria are the cycle’s bedrock, with Mr. Damkoehler alternating a grimly impassive Northumberland with a farcical Pistol, and Ms. Scurria moving as old Gaunt in his dying tirade, her booming voice becoming a death-toll for his ‘precious stone’; as the Chorus, she lightens her voice to proclaim in clarion tones --- a most impressive instrument.

Had I not seen Kevin Kline’s Falstaff at Lincoln Center, I would be more enthusiastic towards Fred Sullivan, Jr.’s fat rascal for Mr. Kline was masterly in his showing first and foremost an old soldier who knows what war truly has to offer and has chosen to coast, enjoy himself and to save his skin whenever possible. Mr. Sullivan’s Falstaff, in comparison, is Santa-loveable but hard to imagine on the battlefield, thus his “honour” speech rings more cowardly than his turning tail during the moonlit robbery. Mr. Sullivan is clearly enjoying himself onstage in his three roles, roaring and bursting with life, which is all well and good when he is a scene’s focus; when he is part of the ensemble, however, Mr. Sullivan over-emotes while the others remain still, their eyes fixed on the main speaker(s). Take, for example, the farewell scene between Richard II and Queen Isabel, watched from above by an impatient Northumberland. When the monarchs repeatedly kiss and sigh, Mr. Damkoehler (who can chew the scenery with the best of them) glances away out of deference and irritated embarrassment; whether you notice him or not, Mr. Damkoehler stays in character and does not call undue attention to himself. In my mind-theatre, Mr. Sullivan’s Northumberland would stroll about in circles, twiddle his thumbs behind his back, whistle a tune, sneak a few peeks over his shoulder and finally dissolve into tears or wreathed smiles over all those farewells. If Mr. Sullivan is a ham --- and he is --- at least he slices consistently, but for all his joviality, there is a wary watchfulness to him that would lend itself well to smiling villainy; an ideal Claudius for some lucky Hamlet….

Even though he is HENRY IV’s title character, Henry IV is overshadowed by Falstaff and the tavern scenes; Falstaff is a comic life force while Henry IV is a solemn, haunted soul. Timothy Crowe’s king, as lean and as carved as a medieval icon, must be seen in both productions in order to fully appreciate his achievement: in RICHARD II, his Bolingbroke is bold but conventional, ambitious but in the name of England, his England; in HENRY IV, he is blasted; shriveled; and Mr. Crowe shrewdly banks his fires until the famous deathbed scene with Hal, when this dying lion rears up on his haunches to roar, full-throated, one last time. Mr. Crowe’s instrument may lack a ringing tone --- modern playwrights may be more his meat --- but he neatly, firmly hits all of the right notes; in fact, a more florid actor may not have been as effective as Mr. Crowe’s anguished Henry whose greatest battles have all taken place, within. The hipster Nym, ever ready to whip out his wrist-gun, allows him a few funny moments, albeit modern ones.

With Ms. Scurria and the Messrs. Crowe, Sullivan and Damkoehler as the four stakes in Shakespeare’s tent, what about its center pole: Hal/Henry V? An idealized king is the best way to go as Henry’s speeches must stir his ranks to action and follow him wherever he leads --- Shakespeare’s tale needs a rose rising from the manure with but a few thorns (HENRY IV can and has been used as an anti-war tract; HENRY V is definitely for heroes). Stephen Thorne, boyish in looks and build, is a cool, diffident Hal that harkens back to the England of the Swinging Sixties (his would be a perfect poker face for Joe Orton’s LOOT), but happily Mr. Thorne evolves into an ideal storybook king, burning with a blue flame that remains steady and pure, whether in battle (his slim prowess must be winked at) or in courtship --- his lyrical intensity might even be molded into a Hamlet for Mr. Sullivan’s Claudius.

Among the ensemble, Mauro Hantman makes a goofy Hotspur, more laughing trombone than fiery snare drum, and Rachel Warren balances her impassioned Duchess of York with a crabapple Katherine (her suitor must covet France dearly to be wed to this puss de sour). Ironically, Ben Steinfeld’s rich, flowing declamation is put to better effect in several walk-ons than in his big chance as the caricatured Fluellen and in a wonderful burst of theatre, Drew Battles’ Bishop of Carlisle cuts through the squabbling over Richard II’s fate with a shaft of quivering indignation --- no small roles, indeed! Again, I return to Isabel’s lady-in-waiting, she who will gladly weep if it will please her sorrowing Queen. This tiny role lingers behind for me, after the others have all departed, thanks to Shakespeare’s inserting these few squeaks from a mouse amidst the din and to Miriam Silverman who delivers them with artless, childlike grace; Ms. Silverman also doubles as an amusing Alice --- poised, haughty and worldly as only ze French can do.

What a history lesson! What an unbeatable, unmatchable event! Go then, for Trinity, New England and St. Scribbler!

"The Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2; Henry V" (5 October - 19 December)
TRINITY REPERTORY COMPANY
201 Washington Street, PROVIDENCE, RI
1 (401) 351-4242