Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review - "Henry V" at the Irondale Ensemble Project

Review by Olivia Jane Smith
Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Matt Nuernberger as Henry
with Terry Greiss
Shakespeare’s Henry V is a play about war, leadership and its attendant responsibilities, and the power of charisma to change the outcome of world events. It’s also about ambivalence toward those things and, on a more personal level, the journey of a young king who is still growing into his giant shoes—even if he’s bent on filling them from the minute he steps into power. In the Irondale Ensemble Project’s elegant, energetic current production in their lofty cavern of a space inside the Lafayette Ave. Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, we see more the determined, single-minded leader than the young man—up until recently a “giddy, shallow youth” as his enemy the French Dauphin would have it—who in the trial-by-fire war he starts with France is still learning what it means to be King: to have the weight of a nation, and the lives of its people, squarely on his shoulders. As a result the trajectory of the play feels somewhat flattened.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to see this production. All the actors have fine moments. Matt Nuernberger, in the title role, gives a fierce, driving, sometimes laser-focused performance. He has the necessary charisma, but his portrayal would benefit from more subtle shades—the more he slows down, the more nuances we get. Alex Miyashiro, who normally plays Katherine of France only in the matinees, was a breath of girlish exuberance as Henry’s future queen. Terry Greiss was especially strong as the shaken Mayor of Harfleur and the sage Sir Thomas Erpingham. While I enjoyed Gabriel King in his more straightforward portrayals, for me his accent, pipe smoking, and mannerisms were distracting in what should have been his standout role as the wry strategist Captain Fluellen. Patrena Murray charmed as Katherine’s English tutor and caretaker, Alice.
Director Jim Niesen’s minimal staging—the play is performed with a cast of 10, with long sticks for swords and a few chairs—is often very effective; the charge into battle that follows Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” speech is one of those moments you always hope for in the theater, when a bunch of actors in a room suddenly become more than that because they have stirred something—a feeling of purpose and moment—in the audience, no special effects required.

It’s a tricky prospect to have all the characters played by only 10 actors, all of them, save for Henry, playing at least three different roles. Niesen mostly succeeds in making it clear which characters we’re watching in any given scene. The simple, pleasing costumes by Hilarie Blumenthal—very well edited street clothes, mostly, plus a couple capes—manage effectively to evoke soldiers, noblemen, French people (always clad in white shirts), and riff-raff, and help us keep it all straight. Still, it takes extra work for the audience to leap from scene to scene; we’re often a few steps behind as we piece together, based on the dialogue, whose company we’re in at any given moment.

Niesen has a graceful touch with the visual elements of the production, from the way he arranges the players in the wide open space, to their movements and the transitions between scenes, to some staging that is quite beautiful. After the battle of Agincourt, a white drape the size of the stage is pulled across it in one slow sweep, in its wake revealing dead bodies lying on the field. It’s not a new coup de theatre, but it’s a good one, and well executed. Even after the other fallen rise and morph back into their other roles, a boy’s body (Ben Mathews) is left on the ground, alone on stage. The company then processes in with candles and solemn music, and amasses around him with their backs to us, like gravestones, filling the stage with the ranks of war dead. In stillness, the boy finally stands to look at the audience, and the company slowly turns to face us. It’s all very simple, and all the more effective for it.

Ken Rothchild’s spare scenic design and lighting both perfectly complement the overall feel of the production. The sudden brightening to a white glare when the traitors against Henry are revealed, and the red glow that accompanies the slow motion charge into Agincourt are two moments when the lights take center stage to good effect. The live music also adds immeasurably, whether from the players singing softly together; Scarlet Maressa Rivera (who also plays Mistress Quickly, among others) accompanying herself on a tiny stringed instrument; or Dan Weschler on the accordion, a nice Gallic touch in a play about the conquering of France.

Many of the play’s speeches—and this goes for Henry as well the other players, when they have more than a few lines of text to deliver at once—seem rushed. Yes, for Henry in particular, there is urgency in these words, but we still want to revel in them. Pacing always seems tricky to me in Shakespeare; too deliberate and it can feel spoon-fed, too fast and our ears can’t keep up, and we miss savoring the language. This production does better when the actors are in dialogue and have each other to listen to. When they speechify, it can feel like we’re the ones under siege.

Perhaps my favorite of Henry’s scenes showed a different side of the King. Near the end when he courts his bride-to-be, he calls himself warlike, but maybe he’s got it wrong—for me this Henry seemed a better lover than a fighter. Here Nuernberger becomes much more lively—he seems to be having more fun. The result is that he shows a comparative rainbow of facial expressions and body language. It makes the rest of his performance look storm cloud grey—tense and energetic, but too uniformly so. There are, of course, exceptions, times when you can see from one moment to the next the lessons Henry is learning registering on his face; there is a marked change from when he plays the heavy in persuading the Mayor of Harfleur to surrender, to the end of that scene, when Henry assures him that if he opens his gates, his people will be safe.

Being Henry V is a lot of weight to carry, as the play clearly points out when the King poses as a commoner and makes the rounds with his soldiers, learning in the process just how keenly they are aware that they lay down their lives on his word: if England fails, it will be “a black matter for the King that led them to it.” It’s also a heavy load for an actor. I hope in his remaining performances, Nuernberger can shake some of that weight off, and enjoy being a warrior prince as much he seems to relish wooing a future queen.

Henry V

November 22 - December 10
Tuesday | 7PM
Wednesday - Saturday | 8PM
No show Thanksgiving
First week of performances and ALL Tuesdays | $10
All other performances | $35
For tickets, click here.

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