The Actor's Shakespeare Project has a habit of staging productions that must be seen to be believed. On paper, a Henry V staged with only five actors reads like a gimmick or a disaster, but on this stage, it works. The thread upon which director Normi Noel suspends the show is poetic faith. The question is: Can the audience be made to believe hard enough, long enough? The play, with its pre-postmodern, fourth-wall-breaking Chorus, is itself an eloquent argument for the potential powers of the imagination.
The show succeeds most when it's at its plainest, because that is where the audience is most connected to the material and to the shared imaginary space. The opening, when five actors simply walk onto the stage and begin to speak, is both perfect and moving. The small space and the open and honest performances create feelings of intimacy and connection. Throughout, the actors encourage our involvement by suggesting, through glance and gesture, that the audience has taken on the part of assembled English nobles, French princes, or weary soldiers.
As the play continues, that feeling of inclusion becomes one of complicity. Noel calls our attention to the present, complicated moralities of invasion, occupation, and collateral damage with subtlety, but she never lets us forget that we are all of us involved, no matter how removed we think we are.
The cast summons up a tremendous amount of energy, and shares over thirty roles between the five of them without flagging. Seth Powers' Henry is young, frustrated, overconfident, lacking in introspection but overflowing with a determination to do right by his father and his country. When Powers plays Bardolph, intervening in a fight between Ken Cheeseman's Pistol and Doug Lockwood's Nym, you feel the thread connecting the characters even as the mood and language changes.
Cheeseman's performance as Pistol, King Charles VI, and the Archbishop of Canterbury highlights a streak of the mercenary even in the highest offices, which lends a consistency to his scenes, even while the characters, themselves, are easily distinguishable by their tone and their body language (gangly, stooped, and stiffly upright, respectively). Paula Langston's roles are more diverse, but she handles them no less deftly for it. Her Mistress Quickly is highly sympathetic, her Exeter strong and competent, and her Fluellen feisty.
Doug Lockwood begins and ends the show with two bureaucrats—the scheming Bishop of Ely and the schmoozing Duke of Burgundy—and is especially sweet as the aforementioned Nym, while Molly Schreiber plays the Dauphin and Princess Katherine both adorably. Although Noel undermines gender stereotypes by casting the two women often enough as men—this is especially effective when Langston as Exeter deliver the lines "But I had not so much of man in me, / And all my mother came into mine eyes / And gave me up to tears."—she never does the reverse of casting any of the men as women. Further, Schreiber's portrayal of the Dauphin does play rather heavily on the stereotype of the French as effeminate, one that Shakespeare often traded on himself.
The show is less successful when it distracts the audience from our emotional involvement and reminds us too much of the theatrical. Accents and affectations create a distance, or a divide. Those French characters who speak French make sense, but those that speak with French accents are distracting. The same is unfortunately true of Fluellen's thick Welshness.
Skip Curtiss' set design is suitably sparse. The round stage is a simple 'wooden O', with a large support beam in the center that serves as a lean-to for various props, and as an unfortunate interruption of one's view of the action. Although the production's blocking makes the best of this situation, it never entirely overcomes it. In several scenes, an inability to see the actors' facial expressions creates an obstacle to a fuller understanding of their characters.
Lighting Designer Steven Rosen also makes the best of a bad situation, as a short, but stunning moment stands out as exemplary. During the famous St. Cripsin's Day speech, the house lights come up, making overt the suggestion that the audience is both included and complicit in the action.
Seth Bodie's costume design makes excellent use of simple accessories and contrasting colors (red for the English, blue for the French), which allows the audience to easily distinguish between characters, but these are sometimes unevenly or over-applied, especially for the courtly characters, whose ornate robes and headdresses seem out of place in an otherwise minimal milieu. The same can be said of Dewey Dellay's sound design, which is often apt, occasionally intrusive, and sometimes overwhelming. The music is wonderful throughout, especially the scenes in which the actors, themselves, sing snippets of song, but the battle scenes are too full of loud and distracting noise to the point of drowning out the actors.
This production is engaging both for its intimacy and its immediacy. Although it is sometimes hampered by distractions of costume, sound, or accent, it succeeds at getting at the basics of Shakespeare's play, and at engaging the audience in the joys of theater, in general.