Henry V

Dennis Grimes Oak Park Festival ShakespearHenry V

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Kevin Theis

At the Oak Park Festival Theatre

This story shall the good man teach his son

The Oak Park Festival is held in an absolutely beautiful park, with old, noble trees and sounds of summer one must get out of the city to enjoy, sounds of wildlife such as cicadas.  (Of course as I type this I can hear a cicada chereeing outside my window; but outside the city they are so much more pronounced!)  It is a wonderful place to take a date, so long as they’re the right type of person.  And if they aren’t why would one take them on a date in the first place?  It is also an excellent way to introduce Shakespeare to children.  Outdoor theatre almost always is.

Oak Park Festival Theatre Chicago William ShakespeareAnd Henry V is such a magnificent play.  My god, it’s epic, isn’t it?  Some of Shakespeare’s best-penned lines are contained within.  “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!” “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers….” “O, for a muse of fire…!”  Half the play is deathless speeches.  Speeches that, when all is ruin and ash and the world of men has forever sunk into the deep annals of time, shall yet be recited and remembered as the glory of man and some of his finest jewels.  That said, it’s no Henry IV.  Ah, Shakespeare!

But this is a difficult play.  This is a play of war, glorifying war and the honors that come with it, patriotic perhaps to the point of nationalism.  But Shakespeare is never so simple-minded, is he?  His Henry V is not perfect.  He is human – all-too-human – and has faults as the rest of us have.  Indeed, the entire play cannot be understood properly without the advice Hal’s father gives him near his death: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, May waste the memory of the former days.”  Once crowned, Henry V is looking for a reason to go to war, so that England may come together behind him united against a common enemy.  That is why the preposterous reasons to assault France given by the church are allowed breath: they are an excuse to do what his father advised him to do.  That is the context of the play, and it is important, in my mind, not to forget it.  Henry V can be played – and was, by Olivier, during the Second World War – as hyper-patriotic and war-mongering.  But it is political, savvy, and, in spite of being inspirational as all hell, also a bit cynical.

Oak Park Festival Theatre Chicago William ShakespeareOak Park Festival Theatre does not emphasize this; which is fine.  Nobody said a simple retelling of the tale is necessarily a bad one.  Indeed, it is a fairly straightforward production.  There is the clever gimmick of having “stage-hands” present, emphasizing, as the Chorus does at the onset of the play, the insufficiencies of a flimsy scaffold to hold “the vasty fields of France.”  The play begins by acknowledging its insufficiencies.  And a production that uses that effectively does a justice.  However, the “stage hands,” while clever enough during the first chorus, quickly wear out their welcome, and become anachronistic eyesores that take part in too much of the action and take away from the suspension of disbelief such an endeavor requires.  The floor mics are also a complete distraction, as floor mics always are: they pick up too much foot and background noise, and only occasionally get the actors.  Can we not simply project?

Oak Park Festival Theatre Chicago William ShakespeareStill, the large part of the play is very enjoyable.  The actors are almost universally sturdy, if not better.  Dennis Grimes’ Henry is at times dispersed and lacking the proper gravitas, but in the main he carries the character well, with upright carriage and strong action.  Matt Engle, Joe Bianco and Dan Wilson have good repartee as the Dauphin, the Constable of France, and the Duke of Orleance, respectively.  And Jack Hickey’s Fluellen was quite strong – as were several others.  There were, of course, weaker points.  The bawds’ enunciation occasionally left something to be desired.  Exeter, Jude Roche, was simple and brutish, instead of a kind of surrogate father to the King.  And the Chorus, Belinda Bremner, was dead space, bringing nothing to the part but a lack of presence.

Overall, the play had strong moments and weak moments, sometimes in the same speeches.  The body parts speech was delivered very well, but the at-times halting accent detracted from it.  The breech speech felt diffused; but the speech delivered at the gates of Harfleur was a very powerful scene.  And the wooing scene at the end may be Grimes’ best moment.  He strikes the perfect balance between embarrassment and confidence.

When all’s said, it’s outdoor Shakespeare.  It is not great theatre.  But it is fun.  And it is certainly worth a night, leaving the city with a family (doesn’t have to be your own), some food, and a couple bottles of wine.

Recommended

Will Fink

Reviewed on 7.30.11

For full show information, visit TheareInChicago.

At Oak Park Festival Theatre, 157 Forest Ave. Oak Park; tickets at www.oakparkfestival.com or 708.445.4440; tickets $20-25; Thurs.-Sat. at 8, Sun. at 7; through August 20th.