With virtually every production of Shakespeare, the issue of style seems to be a major deciding factor in its overall success. The dreaded word “concept” often turns off audiences and critics alike, and the consistency of a production’s particular choices often times upstages the actors themselves. Director Gary Lamb’s production of Henry V is no exception.
The text of Henry V is a fascinating magnification of the private lives of those involved in war. The dichotomy of a ruler attempting to understand and be one of his own people is as timely a story line as it is challenging. Lamb aggressively addresses the issue by staging the history play a la 1960’s story theatre. The presentational style, often used in political and social protest, functionally addresses issues by commenting on the narrative and simplifying the symbolism. However, the form also prevents strong connective tissue from being built between individual characters and the audience. In this specific case, the style makes it very difficult to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of each actor’s performance.
Regardless of the presentation, setting down a blanket on the beautiful lawn of Memorial Park in Old Town Pasadena creates an exquisite evening atmosphere for Shakespeare’s lovely words. Levitt Pavilion, essentially a band shell, is slightly crowded with highly-stylized flats painted with the production’s logo. The bright colors and patterns are admittedly distracting, as the partitions are meant primarily as a backstage for the actors. The lighting, with understandably severe limitations due to the system and setting, looks flat and fails to separate the actors from the loud background. The set and lighting, though simple, actually detracts from the “Story Theatre” style by pulling focus from the artists’ vital words.
The costumes and props are simple and help tell the story without any real impact. Wearing mostly black with splashes of red or blue, the color choices give the audience a clear picture of the two warring camps. There is nothing too exciting about the aesthetic, but the characters are easily identifiable. Overall, the main issues with Dean Cameron’s theatrical design are a direct result of the production’s style. Choosing to keep the play’s staging located directly in front of the over-designed set (except for one short moment), and keeping the individual characters looking fairly uniform in their simple costumes makes it difficult to feel anything but far away from the performers.
Lamb’s staging is inventive and courageous, pushing the envelope with representational movement and live sound effects. The actors are simply unable to take the interpretive movement and create something powerful, resulting in occasionally silly moments. The actors must also be commended for their commitment and bravery, as they give great effort to the challenging style. In the end, however, the actors are only strong enough to carry the text without the concept.
Matthew J. Williamson gives the role of the young King Henry a strong vitality with a good dose of charm. His performance is occasionally inconsistent, but again, it seems a result of attempting to negotiate the presentational style with the personable nature of the character. Nicole J. Adelman plays a variety of roles including Catherine, the Princess of France with great energy and skill, and only occasionally becomes abrasive—partially due to her vocal timbre over the mediocre sound system. Dennis Benjamin is consistent and enjoyable as Captain Fluellen, adding necessary humor and character physicality throughout the production. Joanne McGee and Elizabeth Wells play a Greek Chorus of sorts with a strong handle on the language and style. Both play other characters with fair range and complete commitment to the larger-than-life style. Andrew Graves also gives an extremely colorful performance, doing an excellent job of standing out from the set and staging for his brief moments on the stage. The rest of the ensemble cast maintains the integrity of performance throughout, keeping the audience engaged despite the detached ambiance of the production.
At the end of a cool Fall evening, hearing Shakespeare’s thoughts on a completely relevant issue in the fresh air remains enjoyable thanks to the care and heart put into Crown City Theatre Company’s production of Henry V. Though the environment and presentation may make one yearn for a more intimate connection with “Harry’s” men before battle, the actors do a fine job of bringing the words and private moments of the soldiers and royalty back home to the audience. If you’re looking for a profound presentation of an extremely challenging text, you may be disappointed. However, if you’re seeking a relaxing evening that requires only a blanket, a picnic basket and an appreciation for a rarely presented piece, Henry V might be just what you’ve been looking for.