Though Shakespeare wrote ten history plays (seven of which are about the various Henries) Henry V is the only one that begins with a disclaimer that it is, in fact, a play. The Chorus' prologue attests to the power of the audience's imagination in providing the epic scope for such epic events, but it also sets a challenge to the company: prove that their descriptions as "flat unraised spirits" on an "unworthy scaffold" are self-deprecation, not prophecy. It's a challenge the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production of Henry V rises to meet.
Their first rebuttal comes from the set, by scenic designer Bob Phillips. A shallow twelve-sided wooden platform anchors the center of the wooden stage, framed in the back by six massive wooden wall panels. It's a clever riff on the prologue's mention of the "wooden O," and its multi-sided shape is a reference to the original wooden O: the Globe Theater. The set’s all-over wooden panelling is simple without being boring, its soaring height imposing without being overwhelming.
In contrast, Sam Fleming's costume design is intended to draw attention. The loosely-period designs are light on historical hosiery but big on rich velvets and well-cut leather. Even the lower-class characters show some shabby-chic style – Bardolph's messy layers of grimy shirt, leather tunic, and fingerless gloves are quite visually distinct from Nym's angry goth black version of the same. Costume changes (or lack thereof, for the lower classes) add a grace note of realism. Bedford, for example, exchanges his flowing burnt-sienna velvet tunic worn during the scenes at court for a more practical red and orange leather doublet and chain mail in the field. The French indulge in conspicuous consumption, with Katherine first appearing in a lovely blue velvet gown that she exchanges for an equally sumptuous one of gold cloth and dark red velvet trim, and the Dauphin switching from black and gold brocade to cerulean-lined armor to a dashing midnight blue velvet outfit, donned specially for France’s capitulation. By contrast, the English and especially Henry appear as models of restraint. He contents himself with either the crown and a red leather doublet, or the uniform of his tunic emblazoned with his coat of arms over a coat of mail – one that ends up rather rusty by the end of the campaign.
The cast is uniformly strong, never overwhelmed by their finery or the looming, spacious set. Marnie Schulenburg plays a charming Princess Katherine, as fluent in gentle humor as in French; her role as the Boy offers an interesting counterpoint as a younger but more world-wise individual who is also trying to find an honorable path in the world (despite some less than ideal role models). Jane Ridley plays the Princess' attendant Alice with a motherly and a hilariously judgmental tone, simultaneously expressing concern for her charge while cowing even Henry V with her unimpressed reaction to fast English customs. Though many of the comic scenes have been trimmed for the production, the core of Fluellen's idiosyncratic viewpoint and verbal tics remain with Anthony Lawton's highly entertaining and passingly accented performance.
Zack Robidas' Henry, meanwhile, presents a confident front of responsible yet bold leadership at nearly all times. Initially, this detracts very slightly from the production: Henry is a little too convincing in his confidence to the detriment of dramatic tension. However, Robidas eventually makes it clear this is certainly a façade. Despite coldly condemning Bardolph to death, there are a few brief moments where Robidas has Henry silently observe his former friends with something akin to longing, though he makes no attempts to reconnect with them. Henry's suppressed feelings come to a head in Act IV. Finally alone, Robidas delivers his "Upon the king" soliloquy with a distinct air of bitterness, and his prayer to the God of Battles is full of desperation on behalf of the subjects Henry just bemoaned. In the final scene with Henry’s courtship of Katherine, Robidas reveals that beneath his confident exterior is an amusingly tongue-tied and awkward young man, trying to win over his future wife by treating her as an equal privy to his confidences (or lack thereof). Set against these contrasts, the St. Crispin’s Day speech seems that much more powerful, drawing in the other characters and transmitting Henry’s assurance; the scene ends ends with the cast joining Robidas as he faces the audience, simultaneously portraying a confident company of soldiers and actors.
As in past productions, director Matt Pfeiffer and composer/sound designer/music director Alex J. Bechtel make use of the talented cast to incorporate live music into the production. A martial drumbeat effectively underscores many of the scenes and stands in for the clamor of war. Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol's drinking song is a rollicking number that recalls the music of happier days (specifically: Silence's shanty; Act V of Henry IV, Part 2); its quavering reprise during battle is extremely effective. Likewise, the Renaissance-esque polyphonic arrangement of 'Non Nobis' picks up the production's religious themes as well as signalling a paradigm shift from the fields of Agincourt to the palaces of Paris. However, the arrangements of the Fleet Foxes' "Sun Giant" and "Blue-Spotted Tail", and the 19th-century American folk tune version of the 18th-century hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing", are somewhat distracting. The lyrics seem only tangentially relevant to the play, and when every other aspect of the production is loosely based on history or Shakespeare, their unrelated anachronism sticks out in the midst of the cast's masterful performance.
Pfeiffer's emendations to the text are largely successful, though one misses the more pronounced current of humor that could have provided a foil to Henry's confidence, and the otherwise-successful combination of minor characters leads to the eyebrow-raising decision to off Prince John of Bedford (Akeem Davis, infusing the somewhat limited role with warmth and loyalty) – thus questionably killing the black guy first and causing some historical difficulties for next year's projected staging of Henry VI.
But Pfeiffer otherwise strikes an excellent balance between the disparate strands of the production, combining Thom Weaver's notable lighting, J. Alex Cordaro's fight direction, and the cast's humor and pathos into a steadily-moving historical treat. "What intrigues me in this epic tale of British history," Pfeiffer notes, "is that Shakespeare strips down to the bare essentials: the characters' journeys and what makes them flawed human beings." Those journeys remain the heart of the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's production of Henry V, and if the equilibrium of epic and essential does not quite make it to the "brightest heaven of inventions", they certainly make it high enough to be well worth the effort.