By Chuck Conconi
There are rare times in the theatre when a play that has been around for centuries will surprise you with a brilliant, well conceived and acted production, unexpected because it is so familiar. The Folger Theatre production of Henry V, which runs through March 3, does that. It is one of Shakespeare’s easily recognizable plays with young king’s familiar Saint Crispin’s Day ringing oration before leading his vastly outnumbered troops once more into the battle at Agincourt. It is one of the great Shakespearian dramas that is as contemporary as today’s news. Henry V is all about the grim human sacrifices of war, the unrealistic call of patriotism, and a callow king who is tested in battle and becomes a better leader of men than even he realizes he can be.
As envisioned and directed by Robert Richmond, Henry V at the Folger is a rare theatrical production where everything is right, from the set to the costumes, to the music and lighting, and especially to the 13 member troop of players performing the 48 characters of the play. There is no argument that the intimate Folger Theatre is a setting that profoundly enhances the Shakespearean experience, but to say that detracts from this marvelous production that taxes the ability in finding the proper superlatives.
Henry V is the inexperience king on a campaign to seize the throne of France who faces a superior force on the fields of Agincourt, and against the overwhelming odds, is victorious. Richmond describes the play as “a young man’s rite of passage.” And Zach Appleman, who portrays the callow king, is simply mesmerizing. Anyone who sees this production will forever measure any future productions by the standard Appleman has set.
Every member of this remarkable cast deserves recognition, and it seems unfair not to praise individual performances. There are performances, however, that must be listed. That includes Richard Sheridan Willis, who as the chorus, sets the scene, Louis Butelli as the tragic Bardolph, and Katie deBuys who, in two significant roles — one an impressionable English boy who follows off to war and later as Katherine of France who is marry Henry. Henry and Katherine have a delightful, memorable scene together — the English king in halting French attempting to express his love, the beautiful princess in hesitant English, being coy and coquettish.
One of Richmond’s additions to the production is the mesmerizing music of Jessica Witchger, who plays an exciting, sometimes melancholy violin background. She also plays the harp. Her inclusion into the background of the production, is still another example of Richman’s deft hand.
Mariah Hale’s costumes are respectful of the historic period. Tony Cisek designed a functional minimalist set with massive timbers that are lowered or pulled back to establish the moods of Andrew Griffin’s lighting design and Michael Rasbury’s sound design. Not to be overlooked is the complex stage fighting by fight director Casey Kaleba.