Alone of the history plays, Henry V makes a point to highlight that it is a history play, with the Chorus popping in every act to remind the audience what’s going on, exposit on coming developments, and ask them not to judge the special effects (or lack thereof) too harshly. The end result can be almost as concerned with the play’s function as much as with its history, and it is this tack taken by the Lantern Theater Company. The result is an ambitious, if occasionally uneven, attempt to showcase the mechanics of the production as well as its subject.
Fortunately, given that the play’s deconstructive tendencies tend to put the burden of encouraging the audience’s imagination on the actors, the cast is almost uniformly excellent. The production does not skimp on the play’s moments of comic relief, which in turn leads to some of its strongest performances: Mal Whyte as Fluellen is particularly notable, hilariously bluff while maintaining that elusive beast, a credible Welsh accent. With the exception of Ben Dibble as the eponymous king, the remaining seven members of the company are responsible for all the roles in the play, and the actors handle the changes in character with the ease of their changes in costume (which are conveniently hung up onstage). Jake Blouch as an alternatingly sonorous and snivelling Pistol is quite different from his performance as the equally boastful Dauphin, but no less entertaining. Likewise, K.O. DelMarcelle easily switches from the sassy Boy from Eastcheap to a regal Princess Katherine – though both share a healthy helping of youthful skepticism. In contrast, Dibble plays a very serious Henry, with only a few moments of self-conscious humor to lighten his character between bouts of righteous rage and oratorical genius. The one semi-discordant note is Krista Apple-Hodge’s performance as the Chorus, a sweeping melodramatic turn that out-hams some of the very accomplished (and more appropriate) hams also onstage, and that comes off rather poorly in comparison with her slyly funny bilingual appearance as Alice.
The set design by Meghan Jones is appropriately simple, though somewhat perplexing. Possibly riffing off the Chorus’ characterization of it as an ‘unworthy scaffold’, the raised thrust stage is fitted with several rust-flecked metal poles, flanked by structures of metal and crooked lumber that hold the wardrobe racks, and backed by a peeling plaster wall. The only set dressings are rough wooden boxes that can be stacked as tables, thrones, and benches, and a somewhat incongruous blue velvet curtain that only appears for scenes in the French court. The deliberately low-key and low tech set works, showcasing the strength of the actors’ performances, but the overall impression is that the company is somehow squatting in an abandoned modern building, a possibly intriguing concept that never ties in to the rest of the aesthetic.
In contrast, Mary Folino’s costume design manages to be both utilitarian and appealing. In a production with such rapid role-swapping, speed would seem the most critical factor, but Folino also manages to provide aesthetically pleasing tunics, robes, and gowns appropriate for each character’s nationality and station, in appropriate period dress (more or less). Each actor begins with boots, trousers, and a loose-fitting linen shirt, over which are worn whatever further garments are needed to fit their character. The nobility of England don rich jerkins in shades of red, with Henry switching into a tunic sporting his coat of arms once he goes to war; the French court is clad likewise, but in blue – with the exception of Katherine in a neutral black and gold dress. The commoners, meanwhile, sport rough tunics and jackets. Over these are donned armor, gloves, insignia, a variety of hats, and weapons (like Pistol’s pistol), to further complement the character’s function while differentiating them from other doubled roles.
One of the most notable (and most entertaining) examples of the production’s aesthetics comes in the prologue to Act 2, when the Chorus grandly announces the action’s move to Southampton – only to be interrupted by actor Mal Whyte, only halfway changed into Mistress Quickly’s dress and prosthetic breasts, as a reminder that the actual next scene still takes place in London. It works simultaneously as both a metatheatrical joke and a reminder that the commonest of people also occasionally play an important role in history, a viewpoint shared by Shakespeare’s Henry. However, while director Charles McMahon handles the seemingly onerous task of divvying up history’s literal cast of thousands amongst eight actors and subsequently guiding them through the plot’s permutations with aplomb, the production’s themes occasionally get away from him. Henry’s curiously poorly-attended St. Crispin’s Day speech undercuts his touch with the common folk, an important theme suddenly missing from one of the play’s most prominent scenes. A possible justification for the disrepair of the set finally appears in the last scene, as the Chorus’ final monologue focuses on the disrepair of England after Henry’s reign. However, given that she is inexplicably garbed once again as the elderly Sir Thomas Erpingham, gasping out her lines and expiring in Henry’s arms during a repetition of “O! For a muse of fire...”, the production seems to end on an allegorical note present nowhere else.
Such moments, however, are the exception to the production. The ‘flat unraised spirits’ of the Lantern Theater Company prove to be nothing of the sort, and brilliantly showcase their own talent and the strength of a play that seeks to achieve greatness despite its limits.