This Henry V by The Baron's Men is a feast for the eyes. The elaborate Elizabethan wardrobe of the company goes well with the gratifying outdoor setting of the Curtain Theatre, Richard Garriott's lakeside replica in miniature of the Globe near Austin, Texas.
Costume designers Pam Martin and Dawn Allee are current nominees along with Jennifer Davis for Austin's B. Iden Payne stage award for outstanding costume design, in recognition of their work for this company's 2010 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. For Henry V they've outdone even that outstanding level of accomplishment.
Their program notes acknowledge the work and care that went into these recreations -- "the more than a dozen doublets designed and manufactured for this production, as well as several different designs of pants (trunk hose, venetians, and pumpkin hose). These clothes could not have been made without the dedication and love of the troupe members who donated many hours and some very late nights to complete the costuming."
The company establishes and sustains the Elizabethan illusion by placing cast members onstage both before the piece begins and during much of the intermission. Pikesmen station themselves on watch and parade to the beaten command of drums; Henry and his confederates stand at upper center stage studying a huge, meticulously designed map of the kingdoms on both sides of the Channel. At intermission the guard is again mounted, and Pistol sits moodily at the edge of the stage.
Brian Martin in the title role has the self confidence, presence and the big articulate voice of a fighting king. Complementing that manly assurance are his restraint when disguised in camp the night before the battle of Agincourt and his cheerful awkwardness in courting Katherine of France. Eva McQuade as Katherine is a delight, aflutter with apprehension and anticipation, with mastery of the French and clever interpretation of her lines.
Stalwarts also in the production are Scott Jones as the articulate Chorus, thoroughly at home on the stage of this wooden O; C. Robert Stevens as the hotheaded Pistol; Gene Storie doubling as Erpingham and as MacMorris the comic Scot; and Michael O'Keefe as Welshman Fluellen. Casey Weed's Falstaff is buried under a beard that makes him look like Hagrid as played in the Harry Potter films by Robbie Coltrane, but he regains his elegance as the Duke of Orleans. Bradley Wright's Dauphin de France is a bit too prancing for my taste, but he does exploit for comic effect that prince's long speech praising his own horse.
There are twenty players in this cast and not all of them have the diction or the diaphragm power to project adequately into the wide and windy spaces of the Curtain. Katy Thompson's Corporal Nym glowered and measured swords just fine, but neither I nor my companion understood a word that she said that evening.
Director Garrison Martt circulated round the stands before the opening, a friendly presence with thanks and a good word for all who were attending. He joked that the job of directing was just a matter of pointing the players in the right direction. He's right about that, of course, but we discovered to our dismay that he and many of them were very often neglecting one of the basic rules of the craft. Again and again actors would stand with their backs to us, speaking upstage toward the 'tiring house.
The Curtain is a traditional thrust stage, so the director and players must deal with a 180-degree dilemma (one that moves closer to 240 degrees if the actor is at the forestage and playing to a full house). Those movements could have been scrubbed clean in a single rehearsal if Martt and the experienced members of the cast had been paying attention to the perils of being upstaged -- and, worse, the waste of breath and loss of semblance in the error of turning entirely away from the audience. That's a move so egregiously wrong that a director should break it only deliberately and with specific intent.
Chris Eckert's two-minute video promo for Henry V is dramatic, atmospheric and superbly edited, giving the viewer a sense of the epic nature of the work and vivid, close-up glimpses of the players and action. It's the best I've seen for the Austin theatre scene.
Core members of the Baron's Men came from Austin's high tech and video gaming industries, where Richard Garriott made his reputation and fortune. Eckert's video for them combines the impact of digital artistry and live theatre so effectively that it might, just might, dislodge members of Austin's general public from their computers, hi-def TVs and iPhones long enough to bring them out to participate as spectators to live art.
This is the company's first turn with Shakespeare's histories, and their Henry V is an earnest, honorable and resolute staging with much to recommend it. I've greatly enjoyed watching the growth of this band of brothers and sisters over the past three years. They've put Garriott's whimsical re-creation of the Globe to good use, both for themselves and for the young actors at Cedar Park High School whom they mentor.
Those young persons will be presenting Much Ado About Nothing at the Curtain on November 11 and 12. Come springtime, the Baron's Men will be presenting Ben Jonson's The Alchemist there and, God willing, I'll be hunkered down in the gallery off stage left, exulting in it.