Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Breath of Kings"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Carl A. Rossi


created by Shawn Cody, based on Shakespeare’s Histories
directed by Shawn Cody and Bill Barclay

Prince Hal; King Henry V; Old John of Gaunt … Noel Joseph Allain
Bolingbroke; King Henry IV; Bardolf; Duke of Exeter; French Soldier … Bill Barclay
Hotspur; Sir John Falstaff; The Dauphin … Shawn Cody
King Henry VI; Katherine of France … Kate Harrell
Hostess Nell Quickly; Queen Isabella of France; Traveler; A Scot; Reporter … Carolyne Gallo
Doll Tearsheet; Alice; Earl of Westmoreland; Traveler; A Scot … Christina Kappel
Earl of Northumberland; Pistol; King Charles of France … Curt Klump
Black Prince of Wales; King Richard II; Messenger to Hotspur; Montjoy; Traveler … Nelleke Morse
Sir Walter Blunt; Ned Poins; Fluellen … Ryan O’Toole
Earl of Worcester; Nym; High Constable of France; Reporter … Sam Treadway

If you wish to see Shakespeare lovingly, thrillingly and faithfully served, you’ll find it aplenty at the Actor’s Studio where a daring young company, Shakespeare East, is performing its BREATH OF KINGS for a few meager performances. Actor/co-director Shawn Cody has condensed the Bard’s sovereigns from Richard II to Henry VI into a chronological evening, concentrating on the Prince Hal/Falstaff/Henry V set pieces, with Henry VI as Chorus/Narrator throughout. The costumes are modern dress and the soundtrack is renegade jukebox but the acting is pure Elizabethan in its spare, presentational style and punch-drunk love of Shakespeare’s poetry. Whether BREATH OF KINGS is an evolving work (it could use some trimming) or mere showcase is beside the point: Shakespeare lives and breathes through Mr. Cody & Company; not since the Tufts University production of ROMEO AND JULIET, two years ago, have I enjoyed an evening of Our Will so wholeheartedly. (The play’s title comes from RICHARD II, where Bolingbroke comments on his banishment: “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. (I, iii).)

The company’s website puts their genesis in a nutshell: “An ever expanding ensemble, Shakespeare East (formerly the Midsummer Night Company) was founded in 1994 by a fellowship of childhood friends who grew up together evolving through the arts-education programs offered in Weston, Massachusetts --- particularly those that reveled in freeing Shakespeare’s voice beneath the stars.” How wonderful: these young artists fearlessly declaiming to the darkened heavens, filling their lungs to do the Bard justice, bringing passion back into his scores and proving once and for all that Shakespeare was and always will be an actor’s, not a director’s or designer’s, playwright. Mr. Cody & Company would find a kindred spirit in actress/director Margaret Webster looking back upon her own apprentice days: “The [Sir Philip] Ben Greet productions were not of the highest standard, but his companies were filled with eager young people, none of them awed by the works of the master and all of them ready to tackle anything. … You had to sink or swim. There wasn’t much finesse about it, but it gave you a sense of freedom and of power. You had the feeling that Shakespeare himself would have felt at home there and enjoyed the sensation of driving the play clear through against the odds, as you hold a boat against a high wind.”

Yes, the troupe is a young one but hopefully their youth will prove but a temporary hindrance: some have not yet deepened into the instruments assigned to them by Nature; a few of them --- Mr. Cody as Falstaff, Bill Barclay as Henry IV and Bardolf and, most of all, Noel Joseph Allain as Prince Hal/Henry V --- are already accomplished Shakespeareans; Mr. Allain’s evolving prince, in his cups, in his armor and in his wooing, cries out to have all three HENRY productions built around him. Among the others, Nelleke Morse successfully banishes all traces of girlishness from her voice and stance as Richard II though impersonating a man does not mean appearing to be burdened with two heavy weights below the belt; Kate Harrell, on the other hand, is undeniably feminine and makes a boy-player out of Henry VI and a delicate vixen out of Katherine.

Images? Yes --- and they are all Shakespeare’s, vivid and ripe, without being updated and made “accessible”. To witness the Messrs. Barclay and Allain’s estranged father and son, or the Messrs. Allain and Cody’s princes giving respectful greetings before battling to the death, or the rollicking comedy of tavern scenes, or the affected haughtiness of the French court, or the epic battles suggested with a handful of actors, or the sad hanging of Bardolf, or the bilingual wooing of Katherine is to stand, uh, sit amazed at the timelessness and scope of Shakespeare’s artistry; I recently scribbled that Shakespeare works best when his heart is pumping warm, not cold, blood; after attending BREATH OF KINGS, I can happily rest my case --- I have seen practiced what I have preached. Please, sir, I want some more.

"Breath of Kings" (7 - 16 August)
THE ACTOR’S WORKSHOP, 4th Floor, 327 Summer Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 733-2296

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England’s LIVE Theater Guide