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Shakespeare Ensemble produces winning, innovative Henry V


The Shakespeare Ensemble at MIT.

Sala de Puerto Rico.

April 21-23, 27-29, 8 pm.


WHY IS IT THAT in a play about one of England's most popular and successful kings, a Welsh captain who has no lines until the third act always manages to steal the show? Whatever the reason, the Shakespeare Ensemble production of Henry V was no exception -- Fluellen (Tom Woodman '90) softly walked away with all of the best scenes.

Woodman's lilting voice carried the sensible words and wry humor of the soldier out to the audience, where they contrasted with the high-flown patriotism of the English nobles, the earthy follies of the lowborn soldiers, and the blind self-adoration of the French. Even though the constraints of production seem to have eliminated some of his scenes, he still won the heart of the audience.

Particularly well done was the scene in which Fluellen forces Pistol (played with just the right mix of slime and pathos by Joseph Vanderway '89) to eat the leek which the Welshman wears in his hat. The audience felt sorry for Pistol and yet, at the same time, was glad to see his humiliation at the hands of such a better man.

Pistol also has his own day of triumph when a frightened French soldier forces him to accept the soldier's surrender. Christopher Crowley '89 does a good job portraying the sort of man who would be confused enough to surrender to a wimp and bandit like Pistol.

The rest of the supporting cast also had a wonderful outing. Vic Tulli '91, as the French Dolphin, played the consummate rake, while the French Constable (John Wolfe '88) and the Duke of Orleans (Imtiyaz Hussein '91) also scored big as his more mature soul-mates. Every scene featuring Tulli sparkled, but the scene in which Tulli described his horse as his mistress was marvelous.

Other notable performances were put in by Andrea Leszek '91 as Mistress Quickly and Wendy Cothran '89 as the Chorus. Leszek played a charming but slightly less than normally bawdy Quickly, while Cothran's Chorus was fascinatingly melodic -- although sometimes to the point that the meaning of her words was lost in the fluidity of their pronunciation.

One neat twist was the way the entire cast lounged about on stage while Cothran spoke the prologue. Since the prologue concerns the limits of the illusion which the theater can provide, it was an interesting effect.

Somewhat mystifying -- for those of us who do not speak French -- was the marvelous scene in which the French princess, Katherine, (played by Bronwyn Bergman G) attempts to learn English from her lady-in-waiting (Debbie Wells '92). Actually, it was only hard to understand the words -- the meaning of the conversation (and the foreshadowing it gave of the eventual resolution) was completely clear.

Pistol's partners in crime, Nym and Bardolph (Kevin Iga '92 and Greg Garvin '92), also played their parts to the hilt. Garvin fit the description of Bardolph to an uncanny degree, and Iga was very funny as the sly and gutless, but likeable, Nym.

In fact, the only problems in the performances lay with the English royalty. While technically strong, they simply could not inspire the audience, much less a soldier who might have to give his life.

Greg Swieringa '91 and Charles Roburn '91 did a fine job as the Duke of Exeter and the Earl of Westmerland while they spoke, but turned into stoic wax in all other situations. This was probably what the director had asked for, but the effect seemed overly unnatural.

Eric Ristad G (playing King Henry) had the opposite problem. His mannerisms were wonderful, but his handling of some of the most inspiring speeches in Shakespeare left me unmoved. His performance was energetic, emotional, and technically good, but he just didn't move me the way other Henrys have done. Both Ristad and Roburn seemed to heat up by the time Henry made his speech to the soldiers on the day of the battle at Agincourt. Unfortunately, not much of the play remained after that.

Ristad did seem to move into his element when the action shifted from kingly speeches to shy courting. He was adorable as the unpracticed Harry trying to court Princess Katherine. She knows only broken English, and he even less French. Ristad had to perform the amazing task of courting (in five minutes), and winning, a princess who didn't even speak his language. And it worked -- his passion was unmistakable, even when spouted in a mispronounced French/English hybrid.

The design of the stage deserves more mention than can be made here. Essentially a platform surrounded on three sides by the audience, the stage is very much what Shakespeare himself worked with. It was enjoyable to see a play which was not presented to only one direction.

Some of the lighting effects were also very impressive. The scene in which the Chorus announced the existence of three traitors (all decked out as agents of some kind of 14th century KGB) was especially well designed. The cannonfire at Harflew was also very well done.

The performance was generally very entertaining, especially the supporting characters and plots. If only Henry himself were a little more like Oliver North and a little less like the captain of a debating team, the production would have been flawless.