nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
July 13, 2007
Riverside Park is a magical place at dusk, despite the constant rumble of the West Side Highway. The area where Gorilla Rep has chosen to perform Henry V is particularly wonderful, with lots of trees, some open spaces, hills and vales and, especially magical, fireflies! I had not been to a Gorilla Rep production before, but I knew that I should expect to follow the actors around, as they stage various scenes in different locales and keep the action constantly, and literally, moving. After experiencing it, I would say that it is as close to a cinematic concept that live performance can get, with scenes dovetailing and segueing without stop. There is an added energy that this type of performance brings, from the point of view of the audience, as you cannot be a passive watcher—you have to move around and expend energy, too. This all adds to the excitement and vitality of the evening. And there are benefits—it is nice to be able to solve sightlines problems purely and simply by just relocating to get a better view; and if you can't hear, no problem, just move closer. This last point is particularly important to a Gorilla Rep production, as it allows actors to not have to over-project, a dread by-product of open air Shakespeare performed without benefit of amplification.
Jacob Knoll, as Chorus, is extremely skilled at the Gorilla Rep style Wearing contemporary clothes, with a shoulder bag signifying that he is a fellow traveler with the audience, he sets the scenes and brings us along with a clarity of thought and voice that is a pleasure. Drew Hildebrand is also very successful, bringing us his various characters, including the French Constable, with refreshing honesty. In fact, most of the 18 cast members are engaging storytellers who hold our interest through the 2 hours and 40-plus minutes of non-stop action. (Yes, the show is performed without intermission.) I can't single them all out, but other notable performers are Greg Petroff as Fluellen, Jon Deliz as the Bishop of Ely (and the French Dauphin), and David B. Sochet as Corporal Nym, Montjoy and others. Jeff Barry gives us a youthful interpretation of Henry V: a man more at home in the broad, rallying scenes than in the nuanced intimate scenes. This Henry is a battler—with his adversaries, with his introspective self, and even when he woos his love.
No one is credited with the lighting but special note must be given to it. Performing in a park at night with multiple locales could be a logistical nightmare. Gorilla Rep solves this simply and brilliantly by alternating two sets of three radio-controlled footlights, each with the ability to give low and high spectrum lighting (thus we have full "daylight" white light as well as red "campfire" night light. With one scene ongoing, the previous scene's lights are moved to the next locale, thus maintaining the cinematic flow of the evening.
One setting is particularly evocative, the nighttime English camp scenes, when Henry disguises himself and wanders among his men. Here, surrounded by trees, we are able to wander very close to the actors. Indeed, the actors wander amongst us as well. In the dark of Riverside Park, lit with red light to resemble campfires, it is as if we are truly a part of the camp, waiting for the dawn and the French attack at Agincourt.
Director (and founding producing director) Christopher Carter Sanderson has given us a straightforward interpretation of Shakespeare's history. Melissa Dagnini's costumes retain a medieval flavor, though they are rooted in the contemporary—this helps Sanderson's concept, that of modern day actors telling the Elizabethan story of a medieval king.
Certainly the resonances of Henry V ring a clarion call today: the story of a man who invades a sovereign nation, unprovoked and upon very flimsy grounds. He wins a battle and returns home a hero with his "mission accomplished." Yet in Shakespeare, the only way for the conquest to hold is for Henry to marry into the conquered kingdom. The genius of the playwright is the gentleness of the final wooing scene juxtaposed against the violent tapestry of the preceding acts. In a way, perhaps, he is telling us that the way to really conquer an enemy is to join with it in love.
Henry V remains relevant and important as a story about the reasons we go to war, its consequences and aftermath—the current Gorilla Rep production is an entertaining and energetic version that is worth seeing.