nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
August 10, 2011
Classical Theatre of Harlem’s production of Henry V is an overall great show that wrestles bravely with one of Shakespeare’s most contradictory characters. Henry V is centered on the evolution of Henry as a young, untested King of England who throws his nation into war to claim both France and the hearts of his countrymen. While there are many ways to enjoy CTH’s production, France proves a less complicated conquest than the elusive character of Henry.
The play begins with the ensemble loosely hanging out on the stage, greeting the audience, not yet in character. Though I had never seen him before, when Ty Jones entered it was obvious immediately that this was the Producing-Director-slash-Leading-Actor playing Henry. He is a big, handsome man clearly born to play kings and alpha-male characters. His confidence and ease on stage is always a dominating presence. Oddly, this natural strength puts him at a disadvantage to play some facets of Henry. Shakespeare shows us the gifted, charismatic king who rallies his people to war (Jones’s best scenes). But he also exposes the private insecurity of a man very conscious of the lives being gambled for his cause, who matures to greatness right in front of us. Jones does briefly let us into his vulnerability in the soliloquy “Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls, our debts, our careful wives, our children and our sins lay on the king.” But I wanted more of that. I wanted to see some of the scenes that were staged as public performances played more privately. There were other opportunities in the script to expose the cracks in his facade and let us see him actually figuring out how to lead that I felt were missed.
Yet somehow, even under the shadow of such a powerful main character, the performance always feels like a generous ensemble experience. The sheer energy and commitment of the whole cast when they take the stage together is thrilling to behold and the movement work across the board is awesome. Particularly the battle scenes and depictions of violence are very physically innovative (and lit beautifully by Colin D. Young). As no choreographer is credited, I assume it was Jenny Bennett's direction that led the ensemble through these exciting physical choices.
There is a refreshing mix of actors with different levels of experience and all are utilized to their strengths. I particularly enjoyed Carine Montbertrand in her multi-character rocking tour-de-force as Canterbury, Alice, Nim, Gower and La Fer. Her work is hilarious, grounded and showcases a huge vocal and physical range. I also particularly enjoyed Glenn Gordon as Pistol, Scroop and Burgundy for his comedic brilliance and physical exuberance. And I loved Stephanie Berry’s perfect, regal performance as the King of France, which exemplifies the success of gender-blind, non-traditional casting across the whole play. The spare scaffolding set by Anka Lupes (gleefully played upon by the actors) and the slashed, punk-inspired base costumes by Rachel Dozier-Ezell emphasize the “exposed” nature of Shakespeare’s play.
In Henry V, the English are outnumbered by the French 5 to 1 in the battle of Agincourt. That can feel a lot like the odds of keeping a theatre company afloat in New York. This year the venerable Classical Theatre of Harlem is completely reorganizing their leadership team and competing hard for funding in this pinched economy. Much like Henry, Ty Jones and his company are FIGHTING, and pushing ahead “Once more unto the breach.” I could taste this spirit of hope and tenacity in the performance. With this ambitious production of Henry V introducing the next era of the company, I’d place my bet against the odds that Classical Theatre of Harlem prevails and rules the day.