The full cast of Henry V. Crystal Ludwick Photography courtesy of Commonwealth Theatre Center.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jennifer Pennington
featuring Nevertheless Arts Ensemble
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Is Henry V the most accessible of William Shakespeare’s History plays? There is a good argument for Richard III, but whatever the political underpinnings of any individual production, King Henry is heroic but complex; the man we want to be.
The man we want to be? An ensemble of women plays this third entry in Commonwealth Theatre Center’s Young American Shakespeare Festival. Even more radical, they are not playing male characters, a fair idea, they are playing a community of women telling the story in the manner of tribal oral history, passing the roles around and sharing the spotlight with some equanimity.
Shakespeare’s prologue is here preceded by a true Chorus of female voices singing, the cast in collaboration with members of the all-female Nevertheless Arts Ensemble. When they begin the text proper, the first Henry (a smart and sure Cicely Warren) is selected seemingly at ‘random’ and others step into other roles as the narrative commences. The plot positions the new King Henry to invade France and the writing is nuanced in how it allows us to judge the build-up to war. Henry V has been positioned as pro-war (Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film), anti-war, and everything in between.
If at first, the production seems content to follow the traditional, the second Henry (Lilly Stanley) begins to introduce an element of knowing commentary of the justification for war. As women speak the language, there is a degree of parody in the masculine posturing driving the thirst to conquer. By the time the third Henry (Zoë Peterson- full-throated but weary of fighting) gives the speech outside of Harfleur, the satirical note has been fleshed out.
Yet that commentary doesn’t distract from the story, and when Brooklyn Durs steps into the title role she fully realizes the complexity of the character. It may be that Ms. Durs benefits from the luck of the draw, playing the questioning uncertainty of Henry’s ruminative walk through the English camp the night before the final, decisive battle with subtlety, and then delivering the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech with intelligence but not the rousing energy that usually makes it an inspirational tool for men to sacrifice their lives, which seems right for this concept. Her most earnest moments are when she is given the numbers of French and English dead the morning after the Battle of Agincourt; sickened at the volume of French casualties and tearfully expressing gratitude that comparatively few English lives were lost. Although it flies in the face of the impressive ensemble work here to single her out, and with all due respect to the estimable work of the other four Henrys, Brooklyn Durs is so fully in command in these scenes, so fluidly expressive of the emotional life of the character, that she becomes the beating heart of the production.
It falls to the fifth and final Henry, Shannon Austin-Goodin, to manage the comic denouement in which Henry woos the French Princess (Lilly Stanley again), and while Durs is a tough act to follow, Ms. Austin-Goodin has a knack for comedy that serves her very well. It also emphasizes rather than alleviates the abrupt shift in tone in the text. One moment Henry is slaughtering masses of French soldiers, the next he is blithely celebrating the union of the two countries, solidified by arranged marriage as if it were accomplished through peace treaty instead of bloody violence. In such a moment, director Jennifer Pennington doesn’t have to drive home the point. The context she has worked to establish puts the spin on Shakespeare’s words in our ear with no need for undue emphasis.
In a fairly stunning, provocative ending, the student cast is joined by the women of Nevertheless to recite “Unbreakable Heart” by Teresa Willis and sing a composition by Catherine Dalton that unabashedly positions this production as an overt embrace of Me Too and Time’s Up, framing the language and posturing of war as a metaphor for the War on Women many claim to be happening in the United States right now. It is a difficult point to argue against, especially on the day that Alabama’s Governor signed the most restrictive anti-abortion legislation ever written, one that even notable Right-wing Conservative Rev. Pat Robertson has spoken out against.
Can Shakespeare stand up to such manipulation? Certainly, his work has been poked, prodded, and stretched almost beyond recognition in the past, but I believe it is the universality of his writing that makes the work so resilient and relevant. After 400 years, each new production is but an iteration of the text; there are no definitive versions. So at this point, he fairly invites such creative interpretations. Some of these will court foolishness and cover ineptitude, but others, such as this production, are opportunities for risk and experimentation with the power to enlighten.
The design work is understated. The costumes by Lindsay Chamberlin are jeans, khakis, and a range in style of green shirts, many decorated with women’s empowerment slogans like “Girl Power”, or “Sometimes the King is a woman”. The ragtag visual quality conjures up the quality of tribal community and wards off pomposity.
Featuring Ella Atherton, Shannon Austin-Goodin, Jessie Burke, Summer Clark, Leah Cohen, Brooklyn Durs, Beatrice Friesen, Genny Friesen, Laura Gibson, Se’nya Irvin, Meaghan Northup, Ruby Osborne, Zoë Peterson, Alexander Polur Gold, Sara Seim, Sarah Sheffer, Sydney Snyder, Lilly Stanley, Cicely Warren, & Ellie Westerfall.
Members of Neverthless Arts Ensemble
2019 Young American Shakespeare Festival
May 10, 15 @ 7:30, May 12, 18 @ 2:00, May 19 @ 12:30
May 9, 11, 14, 17 @ 7:30, May 19 @ 8:00
The Winter’s Tale
May 11 @ 2:00, May 12, 16, 18 @ 7:30, May 19 @ 4:00
Nancy Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.