By James V. Ruocco
There is a kind of unfinished feel to Hartford Stage's mounting of "Henry V" that produces a slight uncertainty that taints but doesn't derail Elizabeth Williamson's robust, quirky, less-than-triumphant staging of William Shakespeare's oft-revived drama.
There is no set.
The lighting design is mostly stark, shadowy and white with no color whatsoever.
The costumes are modern day street clothes that looked yanked from the racks at Goodwill, the Army/Navy store or the hinterlands of Tribeca.
No one wears a body mike.
There are a handful of bland set pieces and props including a desk, a chair, a blanket, a mop and some towels.
The house lights come up and down for dramatic effect, most notably when the one-man chorus (the brilliant Peter Francis Jones who gives the evening's best performance) makes his presence known in grand Shakespearean style.
There is no real sense of time or place.
This "Henry V" is also staged in the round, in the aisles, in the seats, on the steps and in the corners of the theater with actors coming and going from all directions.
Here, it is the language of Shakespeare that takes front and center in Williamson's vast, intimate, but purposely barren telling of "Henry V," which is told in five acts with a ensemble cast of just 15 who assume a variety of meaty roles throughout the much-edited two hour and twenty minute production. It also should be noted that the men also play women and vice-versa, but without the element of masquerade.
Regardless, no one misses a cue.
The Bard's language rings loud and clear.
Blood is spilled and it's magnificent.
And the onstage "Henry V" cast seems to be having one helluva time.
Still, something isn't right.
Is "Henry V" meant to look like a dress rehearsal?
Can one liken Williamson's staging to that of an elite drama school than specializes in avant-garde theater?
Is the audience meant to assume the role of voyeur?
Is the play's modern slant on "Henry V" the best choice?
One never knows.
That said, Williamson, nonetheless, crafts a fast and fluid interpretation that works remarkably well from scene to scene and act to act. The actors move freely about without any form to calculation playing to all sides of the theater so that most of what happens doesn't get lost in the translation.
To Williamson's credit, the actual in-the-round blocking and stage movement is beautifully rendered, imagined and processed in the bare confines of the theater. Even when there are long passages, the actor who is the central focus of the moment, slowly turns and moves completely about in a circle without any hiccups, which, if positioned wrong, could bring the Bard's celebrated words to a complete halt. Luckily, that never once happens in this production.
At Hartford Stage, Williamson has previously directed "Cloud 9" and "Seder." Here, she puts her best foot forward, but sadly, "Henry V" simply isn't up to Hartford Stage's standards. The pacing, of course, is pitch perfect, but without any sense of real background or location, many of the scenes look exactly alike or are somewhat confusing. Going in, it also helps to know the actual story and the actual mechanics of Shakespeare's storytelling, language and characterizations. If you don't, then "Henry V" isn't going to make much sense to you.
A history play about conflict and political leadership believed to have been written by Shakespeare near 1599, "Henry V" tells the dramatic story of King Henry V of England. It focuses on the events that take place before and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War. It is also the final part of a Shakespearean tetralogy, preceded by "Richard II," "Henry IV, Part I" and "Henry IV, Part 2."
"Henry V" stars Stephen Louis Grush, Peter Francis James, Kate Forbes, Miles Anderson, Evelyn Spahr, Felicity Jones Latta, Liam Craig, Karen Aldridge, Mark Lawrence, Anthony Michael Lopez, Nafeesa Monroe, Jamie Rezanour, Haley Tyson, Baron Vaughn and Reid Williams. As an ensemble, everyone works especially well together. They know Shakespeare. They understand Shakespeare. They like Shakespeare. They appreciate the different beats, rhythms and pauses. They also know how to project the Bard's words in actor/character flourishes that reflect the intended meaning of their creator. Occasionally, they do run out of steam, thus, loosing a word or two here and there, which naturally throws the audience off course. But without proper amplification, this mishap can't be helped.
In conclusion, this "Henry V" plays by its own set of rules, It's a provocative directorial choice that works and doesn't work. When it does, it excites and enthralls. When it doesn't, it disappoints. Should you choose to see it, read up on the subject matter and study it page by page. It can and will make all the difference in the world.
"Henry V" is being presented at Hartford Stage (50 Church St., Hartford, CT), now through November 11.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-5151