Review: “Henry V” (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

Henry V at Chicago Shakespeare
Henry V at Chicago Shakespeare

Show: Henry V

Company: Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Venue: Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Navy Pier)

Die Roll: 2

In this day and age of cinematic tales being extended over multiple installments, rather than being told briefly in one work, we only have to look back to the Bard of Avon to realize that this is not a new way of telling a tale.

“Henry V” stands alone as a play about an ambitious young king who yearns for the conquest of a powerful neighboring country.  However it is also the final chapter in a four-part epic which tells the tale of how the usurper Henry Bolingbroke rises to power (“Richard II”), fights a civil war while doubting his son’s suitability as heir (“Henry IV” Parts 1 & 2), and whose wrongs are redeemed in his son’s noble actions as a rising monarch (“Henry V”).

That rising monarch is portrayed by Harry Judge in Christopher Luscombe’s new production of “Henry V” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater.  A strong and natural leader who has frivolously squandered his younger years hanging out in a den of sin, the Henry that we see in this play has embraced a new way of thinking that is more honorable, but sometimes still has a bit of mischief to it.

Rather than write you a treatise on this play (Which I could — It’s my favorite Shakespeare play), I’ll quickly move to what I liked best about this production, and perhaps a few notes on other things I noticed.  We’ll keep it short and sweet.

First: The set was amazing.  Kevin Depinet’s simple, strong stage elements, such as a rotating and inclining wall that made up most of the needed structures for the tale was both imposing and highly functional.  It set the tone for the entire production.  And when I say simple, i don’t mean that they are technologically lacking, but that they are straightforward with only a couple of elements per scene, but those elements are more than just impressive, and the first time the wall moves the audience is just as enthralled as during some of the more dramatic parts of the show itself.

Second: The performances of the women stand out as particularly good.  Sally Wingert (with whose work I’m quite familiar from my years in Minnesota) and Laura Rook (who plays the woman for whom Henry pines, Katherine) both bring an energy to their scenes that makes the audience understand what’s going on at a deeper level, even when the scene isn’t in English, as one of the most famous scenes of the play isn’t.  I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one in the audience who speaks almost no French, if any at all, and that scene was still very enjoyable.  Wingert does double duty as the Hostess on the English side of things, too.  It’s a testament to her skills that she handles both parts so well, and isn’t immediately recognized to be the same actress, unless you’ve read the program closely.

Most of the play was presented in American accents.  The few exceptions are due to the need for the characters to be discerned by their voices, namely the four ruffians who make each represent a part of the British islands.  James Newcombe carries a good chunk of the show through his character of Fluellen, the Welshman.  And Samuel Taylor does a fine Irishman.  It is Taylor who is of note here, though not for the best of reasons.  He presents us with a far too contemporary, almost hip-hop style of speech for his portrayal of the Dauphin (the crown prince of France).  It stuck out as a sore thumb.

Such was the way with this production.  Each actor who played multiple parts definitely nailed one of the two.  The other suffered for it.

I enjoyed Henry himself.  He wasn’t as strong of a leader or as inspirational as I would have expected, but he was more casual and more of a Henry for this day and age:  ambitious and laid back at the same time.  Determined, and yet a bit mischievous.

All in all the presentation was highly accessible and enjoyable.


TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Epic battles and epic wit are overshadowed by impressive set.

RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”