Many productions rely on the universality of Shakespeare's work – indeed, it is easy to argue that their enduring popularity partially rests with their ability to speak to the audience’s shared experiences of humanity. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, however, draws on a more metatheatrical commonality of Shakespeare's work: how his plays are first encountered by individuals. Their production of Henry V is set in a high school classroom, performed by students who echo the journeys of many theater-goers in their discovery of Shakespeare.
This creates a fascinating challenge for the cast, whose portrayals of their roles must be filtered through another character. Sam Sherburn's Chorus is the teacher with the bold plan to cast his whole classroom in Henry V for their final project, whose repeated appeals to the imagination ring with the effort to impart his own enthusiasm for learning and provoke his students to push the boundaries of their own capabilities. Akeem Davis plays Henry V as played by his high school analogue, an endearingly accurate recreation of a good-hearted young man who is nevertheless intensely uncomfortable in the classroom; who dashes in just after the bell rings, perches on his desk chair with a certain constrained sense of hyperactivity, and actively, if futilely, tries to avoid the assignment of his role. Davis's character echoes in some respects Henry's own journey through all his plays, overcoming a less than auspicious start to develop into a leader fully committed to his role, and Davis perfectly mirrors the twin triumphs of Henry's victory at Agincourt and his character's realization of his own potential.
The rest of the cast have an even greater challenge: each actor plays a variety of ensemble roles while still making clear the student within, and the cast covers a variety of familiar teenage archetypes without being too heavy-handed. Jenna Kuerzi's character appears the most rebellious with her aloof attitude, dyed hair, and non-uniform leggings and boots, but she throws herself into her roles with the most enthusiasm. Her Corporal Nym is a hiccuping drunk mess, while she gives Lord Scroop the nervous tic of rubbing his scarf against his face even as he attempts to conceal his treachery, and the Duke of Orleans a prim and arrogant carriage that complements the rest of the French forces. Similarly, Johnny Smith's slacker seems typecast as Bardolph, but blossoms into a hilarious turn as the Dauphin, the epitome of clueless teenage braggadacio. Lizzie Spellman and Ife Foy's characters, meanwhile, greet the assignment with the eagerness of two very different personalities: Spellman plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, Mistress Quickly, and the King of France as varying degrees of friendly bossy know-it-all, while Foy's excitement infuses Alice and Captain Gower (now clearly a member of the marching band) with socially awkward yet charming enthusiasm.
Dirk Durossett's set design and Amy Martin's costume design perfectly match this high level of high school verisimilitude. The classroom (described by one nearby English teacher as "too real") is warmly colored and brightly lit, plastered with posters and assignments, and even features the high-set windows one knows would be difficult to open on any warm day. A whiteboard informs the class (and the audience) of all the subjects covered in this their final presentation; the freestanding chalkboard is perfect for updating the scene location. Desks and wobbly chairs stand in for the rest of the set dressing and many of the props. Martin's costumes need a little more uniformity to match their desired role as, well, uniforms, but the navy blazers, plaid or gray skirts and jumpers, oxford shirts, and khaki pants all evoke the correct atmosphere, and she perfectly recreates the slightly worn and ill-fitting look of largely functional clothes worn day-in and day-out and probably fitted before the last growth spurt. Besides adding individual flair to their uniforms, the students' accessories are repurposed for their costumes: the traitors wear scarves, the commoners wear hoodies, and the French wear hats and hipster glasses.
This off-beat but well-thought-out approach informs director Aaron Cromie’s entire production, never forgetting the setting while taking every opportunity to infuse the text with wit and vitality. The production plays with Shakespeare's language, as the "wooden O" refers to the circle of desks, "peace out" and "sure we thank you" are given their modern inflections, and the students repeatedly run across words they have apparently been mispronouncing for the whole unit. The quick pace is a good match for both the play and the youthful cast. Their energy translates well into their characters' youthful glee, rendering the battle sequences (where everyone is dressed in mismatched sports gear, carrying such deadly weapons as the cricket bat, bike seat, and paper airplane) into a hilariously engaging if slightly irreverent climax of stage combat. Cromie also gives relatively minor events in the play new meaning with their high school context. The Archbishop of Canterbury's long-winded explanation of Henry's claim to the French throne is now a highly amusing presentation by Spellman's character on the overhead projector, complete with tiny illustrations and sound effects. A play-turned-actual fight between Davis and Jahzeer Terrell's character is reluctantly concluded as Terrell resumes his role as the governer of Harfleur and capitulates; his frustration informs his speech, but Davis' lines as a merciful Henry V also inform his attitude, and the tensions between the two are eventually forgotten as the event draws them even deeper into their roles and the action of the play.
In addition to its fantastic cast and solid production design, Cromie's interpretation succeeds so well because it inspires precisely what the play-within-a-play is trying to inspire: fun. There are certainly many ways to connect to Shakespeare, but this approach for this play clearly speaks to the characters of the students, and in turn to the audience. The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre's production of Henry V perfectly captures the joy of that initial discovery; it evokes not just nostalgia for our own enlightenment, but anticipation for the experiences awaiting future generations and their participation Shakespeare's legacy.