Taking risks with Shakespeare can be a very good thing. But I don’t think director Adam Meredith’s concept for “Henry V,” which continues through Sept. 8 at Woodward Park, ultimately pays off.
Some aspects of this sturdy and impassioned Woodward Shakespeare Festival production are quite nice in terms of acting, design and direction. As we follow the young English king Henry V (Matt Otstot) and his aggressive campaign to subdue France — a war that includes the famed St. Crispin’s Day “band of brothers” speech on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt — the themes of war, loss and the loneliness of leadership do resonate. But perhaps not as much as they should.
Shakespeare’s so-called history plays aren’t his most accessible works, and it’s easy for uninitiated audiences — particularly those without the benefit of a synopsis in the program — to lose track while following the bevy of characters, political alliances and period references.
Granted, Meredith works hard to find a through-line to the show, focusing on King Henry V as a flesh-and-blood and complicated human, warts and all, instead of a mythic George Washington-type wartime archetype. But Meredith’s decision to frame this production as a “memory play,” spending a big chunk of stage time on the young king’s wild past by weaving in flashbacks from “Henry IV, Part 2,” including the injection of the character of the larger-than-life Falstaff (who doesn’t appear in “Henry V”), makes the production seem flabby and overextended. It just didn’t have the dramatic strength I was expecting.
Otstot is in fine form in the flashbacks as the young Henry, known in those days as Prince Hal, the carousing youth who caused his father, Henry IV, such consternation. He plays well against David P. Otero’s big and blustery Falstaff, and the large ensemble obviously has fun whooping it up in the tavern scene. (Then again, the scene goes on far too long, especially in the context of it being a flashback: Yes. We get it. They liked to drink.)
It’s also instructive to see the young Henry’s relationship with his motley band of ably played misfit friends: Pistol (Greg Taber), Nym (Kirk Cruz) and Bardolph (Michael J. Peterson), along with the irascible Boy (portrayed by a very cute and deft Solon Walker). In Meredith’s well-rounded depiction of Henry, we get a chance to examine his roots. In a sad and gripping moment, we watch the newly crowned Henry snub Falstaff — which helps fill in some of the less than heroic blanks of Henry’s character.
I can understand Meredith’s vision here. There’s a certain bouncy immaturity to Henry, even as king. The focus on Henry’s past gives context to the amusing scene (this one from “Henry V,” not the earlier play) in which the Dauphin of France (a standout Michael Braa, Jr.) taunts the king by sending him a case of tennis balls. It’s a reminder that wars are most often started for hot-headed reasons, not by dispassionate number crunchers.
But even with all this background, I don’t feel we get to know Henry as a deeply conflicted leader as much as we should as we get into the real meat of the play. That’s my biggest disappointment with this production. The famous scene in which he dresses as a common soldier and wanders the camp at night to hear what his men are saying about him isn’t as emotionally compelling as it could be. The St. Crispin’s Day speech is rousing, yes, but I wanted more depth to Ostot’s performance when he isn’t in politician mode, to see the humility and insecurity deep down, as he grapples with the tremendous responsibility of sending men off to battle.
Highlights of the production: Dane Oliver’s fight choreography — and presence on stage in such roles as Jamy and Williams — is impressive. Ryan Woods, as Gower, and Luis Romentas, as the French king, are standouts. Russell Noland’s live music is a treat. And the endearing comic interlude between Henry and the French princess, Katherine (a radiant Kaichen McCrae), assisted by the sly Jennifer Hurd-Peterson as her lady-in-waiting, is a hoot. Chris Campbell and Peterson’s set design and Celeste Johnston’s costumes are well done.
And while I quibble with the effectiveness of Meredith’s creative concept, I don’t want to diminish his (and the cast’s) preparation and commitment to the material. This is a lovingly put together show. When Henry reads aloud the list of dead soldiers after the Battle of Agincourt, and the French turn out to lose so many while the English losses are almost nil, I didn’t feel the partisan exhilaration of victory. Instead, a sense of sadness settled into the scene, reminding us that war comes with a terrible cost along with the glory. It’s a powerful and profound moment.