The plays of William Shakespeare contain some of the most glorious passages of prose in the English language. When you think about it, all that’s necessary to produce Shakespeare is a company of actors and a few scripts. The rest is just icing on the cake. The Bard’s plays are frequently treated to exotic locales and far off time periods, wild costumes or a novel scenic idea. The inaugural production of the Tulane Shakespeare’s 14th season avoids these usually overwrought trappings with a high-concept premise: strip the actors of everything but the essential, and the immediacy of the words will rise to the occasion, hopefully engrossing the audience in the raw power of Shakespeare. As suggested in the text, we’re left with (literally) a piece of small scaffolding, a wooden stage, and a few props as our guide. Our chorus is the Orson Welles-like Paul Schierhorn, setting the scene for the bloody battles to come, in which we (the audience, supposedly a character as well) will be asked to participate.
This minimalist concept takes some getting used to with a large-scale work such as Henry V. With nearly fifty speaking roles in this play, almost all of the small company of actors take on four roles each (with I believe some very minor roles incorporated into others). We don’t often see productions of Henry V on stage, and I suspect it is because of the size of the show. This major casting challenge works with varying degrees of success, with some actors gainfully up to the challenge and others not. Most of what doesn’t work has to do with the relative youth of the cast, and the blurred visual distinctions between the actors and their characters. I’m sure I was not the only one who had a somewhat difficult time following along with who was playing who in each scene. At the performance I attended, at any given time, a third of the audience could be seen rifling through their programs! But not that confusion looms over this production: the show is smartly (and economically) staged, and the company presents a lively reading.
Nick Slie makes for an engaging Henry, never overplaying or pandering to the audience. I enjoyed his portrayal greatly, and along with cast members Paul Schierhorn, Jonathan Gonzalez, Rebecca Frank, Barry Hubbard and Natsumi Sugiyama – these corps performances capture what makes Shakespeare so engaging.
The cast is dressed in modern cargo pants and khakis, vests and dress shirts, all in drab earth-tones. Flourishes like teal sashes and flowers signify the French characters, and similar accessorizing in brown for the English, with Michelle Bohn’s understated costuming. Also gone are the usual décor elements – a few casually placed drops (that resemble ships sails), a platform stage, and a large prop-box doubling as a rolling stage wagon for stage action is all the scenery in Emily Ross’ design. Max Lawrence also keeps the lighting to a minimal daylight/nighttime motif, along with startling realization that a campfire’s glow doesn’t need to be masked – just a stage light with red gel.
Director Lorenzo Gonzalez casts with little regard to the gender of characters, a facile conceit as many know that during Shakespeare’s time women’s roles were played by men or boys. Paul Schierhorn plays the matronly Nurse believably, even with his everyday beard. Rebecca Frank is less so as Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Exeter, if only because she is supposed to be much older than Henry, though she is game as Mistress Quickly. Sugiyama is precious as the Boy – her reading is incredibly spirited and expressive, and perfect as Princess Catherine – whose French is a sour point of cultural misunderstanding for the English roles in the play.
Some of this staging’s best moments come during the battle scenes. I loved the bamboo for crossbows and drums for shields, as war has a rather percussive nature in drama anyway, why not have the cast drum and stomp as if that is how they would normally fight. Although at first this production left me a little cold with its spare production values; that its simplicity has stayed with me for days to come is certainly a good sign that this engaging production from a veteran Shakespearean director is worthy of examination by all.
With Andrew Wustenfeld, Barry Hubbard, Clayton Faits, Jennifer Lynn Mefford, Jonathan Gonzalez, Natsumi Sugiyama, Nick Slie, Paul Schierhorn, Randy Maggiore, Rebecca Frank
Directed by Lorenzo Gonzalez
Scenic Design by Emily Ross
Costume Design by Michelle Bohn
Lighting Design by Max Lawrence
Brynn Baudier, Stage Manager