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Review: Henry V, commedia-style, finds the funny but loses the tragedy

Review: Henry V, commedia-style, finds the funny but loses the tragedy
23 Oct
9:03

It is worth noting that almost all the Shakespeare histories are tragedies, and almost all the kings whose stories he recounts are fools or knaves or both. The one exception (aside from the obsequious Henry VIII, of which he was a partial author) is Henry V, which is less a play than a celebration of English exceptionalism.

It is a war story, based on the astonishing English victory against the French and against tremendous odds, at Agincourt, and is full of Henry’s mythic history — how he ordered the execution of false friends for treason, but first querying them about whether he should show mercy to a drunk who had insulted him (they said no, karmically sealing their fate); how the French Dauphin insulted him by sending him a gift of tennis balls to mock his dissolute youth; his relentless early campaign against the French; how he forbad his troops from looting and pillaging the French territory they captured; how he approved the execution of his old running buddy Bardolf for disobeying that order; how he wandered among his troops, disguised as a commoner, in order to learn the true feelings of his army, and finally the magnificent Crispin’s Day speech, the triumph and his plainspoken proposal — the words of a soldier, and an honest man — to Katherine, daughter of the King of France, for a match which would unite the two nations.

So is there any play less likely to benefit from commedia dell’arte treatment — the masks; the ridiculous costumes; the slapstick — than Henry V? This isn’t a trick question; the answer is no. I offer, with some regret, the rendition currently being offered by Washington’s premier commedia dell’arte troupe, the Faction of Fools, as evidence. The execution is there; the cast knows what it’s doing and mines the play for laughs; and the movement is lyrical and graceful. What’s missing is the Henry that Shakespeare wrote, and that England remembered.

Kiernan McGowan as Henry, Hannah D. Sweet as the ship’s prow, and ensemble members of Henry V from Faction of Fools (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

Faction of Fools prides itself, justly, for its ability to draw the comedy from Shakespeare’s tragedies, and it promises with this production of Henry V to put “the inherent comedy of the text front and center.” The company does this; Shakespeare wrote a lot of tension-busting comedy into the play, mostly involving folks from the lower classes and Irish, Scottish and Welsh soldiers, and the Fools play those scenes big, loud and funny. They also take parts from the text which are not inherently funny and play them as though they are, drawing laughs from the audience. I am thinking about the discussion of Salic law at the play’s outset; a discussion that an English audience of Shakespeare’s time would have followed easily but which is obscure to us. (Salic law decreed that the throne could not pass through a woman; the French used the law to withhold the throne from the mother of Edward III, Henry’s great-grandfather. The argument at the beginning of the play was as to whether Salic law actually applied in France at the time. If not, Henry had a rightful claim to the French throne). Faction of Fools treats it as a ridiculous explosion of tendentious pedantry, but it’s what actually sets the play in motion, and makes Hal decide to move forward to war, against his own preferences.

The fact of the matter is that, notwithstanding its comic bits, Henry V is not a comedy, but an emotional retelling of real events (salted with some fiction) designed to make us share pride in our common heritage. Thus, for example, Kiernan McGowan acquits himself reasonably well as King Harry, but in portraying the Noblest Englishman of Them All he is at every moment handicapped by a mask which gives him a nose about seven inches long and which makes him look like a bird of prey regrettably compelled to speak in English.

(l-r) Jesse Terrill, Hannah D. Sweet, Julie Weir, Ben Lauer, and Casey Johnson-Pasqua Faction of Fools (Photo: C. Stanley Photography)

I understand the Fools’ desire to bring out the funny in the play. But not everything in the play is funny. When the three traitors (Hannah D. Sweet, Jesse Terrill and Casey Johnson-Pasqua) are brought before the King, we should feel sadness and terror. They were Harry’s friends, but they did a terrible thing, and we know their doom, even though they do not. Then the King draws things out by asking them whether he should pardon some harmless old drunk for some insult he said in a bar. We witness their heartless responses, and we shiver, knowing that they have condemned themselves. Then we watch as they read the “commissions” which Henry has given them — their death sentences. We see their faces crumple as their futures turn to ashes.

But here, they’re wearing masks, and making exaggerated gestures, and all the heart-pounding tension disappears in favor of comedy, and we end up laughing at a story about three men condemned to death.

McGowan delivers the famous Crispin’s Day speech well, dropping all comic pretenses to give us the monologue which I (and many of you) believe to be the greatest in all of Shakespeare. But, again, he’s wearing that damn mask.

Even the mission of bringing the comedy out in the text seems, though successful, a bit of coals to Newcastle, as Shakespeare has done a pretty good job of bringing the comedy out by himself. For example, the Welsh Captain Fluellen (Terrill), with his mispronunciations, his obsession with ancient Roman army practices, and his headlong defense of the leek, seems comic enough. Does he really need, in addition, a comic mask which gives him googly eyes?

Well, enough of that. Let’s talk about what makes this production a joy to the senses. The actors move on the tiny stage (the theater space is the back stage of Gallaudet University’s Ellstad Auditorium) with extraordinary grace, changing from one character to another with such seeming ease that it appears that they were always that character. What Director Paul Reisman has constructed could justly be called The Dance of Henry V. There are some very fine performances, most notably Ben Lauer in multiple roles. (Except for McGowan, everyone plays multiple roles). Julie Weir is an absolutely charming Katherine, the daughter of the French King who ultimately marries Henry, Her scene partner when she tries to learn English is Johnson-Pasqua, a Gallaudet alumnus who gives her the words using American Sign Language, making the scene a little livelier and less repetitious than it normally is.

To provide interpretation to the deaf and hard of hearing, Faction of Fools engages Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder, using a method called “semi-integrated interpreting.” This means she is on stage with the actors, and moving with them, while she signs the lines. (At other times, one of the actors will sign while another actor utters the lines). You might think that this would create blocking problems, but Reisman has solved them all, and Snyder’s expressive signing is an asset to the production, even for people with perfect hearing. Snyder signs with her whole face and body — not inconsistent with someone whose PhD dissertation was on the subject of the relationship between ASL interpretations of Shakespeare and rhetorical gesture.

Beneath many tragedies there is dark comedy, and Faction of Fools has explored that comedy in Shakespeare’s tragedies to surprisingly good effect. But there are some plays — including this one, which is less a play than a call to remember all that was deemed honorable in the English character — which are simply not suited for comic treatment. Despite the company’s obvious skills, Faction of Fools has come a cropper with this one.


Henry V by William Shakespeare, directed by Paul Reisman . Featuring Jesse Terrill, Hannah D. Sweet, Kiernan McGowan, Ben Lauer, Julie Weir, Casey Johnson-Pasqua, and Dr. Leslie D. Snyder (who was also the ASL consultant) as the interpreter . Costume design: Lynly A. Saunders . Lighting design: Chris Curtis . Props design: Vanessa Spring-Frank . Technical director: Jacob Fisher . Stage manager: Rachael Sheffer . Production manager: Samantha Owen . Commedia coach: Kathryn Zoerb . Rehearsal interpreters: Mary Beth Morgan, Dani Hunt, Mel Gardner, Sarah Batoon-Hughes, Tess Wenderski, Shannon Johnson . Produced by Faction of Fools Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.

Source: https://dctheatrescene.com/2018/10/23/review-henry-v-commedia-style-finds-the-funny-but-loses-the-tragedy/

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