By Kathryn Osenlund
This robust performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V by the Classical Acting Academy is free to the public. Not because people wouldn’t pay to see it ( they definitely would) but because the cast (teachers, designers and staff of The Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, along with volunteers from the Arts & Business Council of Greater Philadelphia) have donated their time. In addition the theatre receives education funding from The Open Door Project. But don’t worry, this is not some kind of “educational” presentation.
This performance by the young professional actors of the Classical Acting Academy (a wing of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre) is the culmination of six weeks of immersion in classical acting techniques. The product of their labors has proven to be so good that performances have been sold out. There is only one week left and anyone who loves Shakespeare would be crazy not to get a free ticket and go.
Henry V, you’ll recall, is the play where young Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays has come into his own, and as king enters into what will be an unbelievably successful war with France. For this production the director, Aaron Cromie, has cropped the play quite a bit, and yet it is still a fulsome Hank Cinq experience. Everything you need is in there.
Cromie presents the play in a classroom wrapper. This take on Henry V is reminiscent of R&J, Joe Calarco’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet (recently performed by Mauckingbird Theatre Co.), where students act the play in a classroom setting. To be honest, the interesting framing device does not entirely work. Even the best students, given Henry V as a final exam, would not be prepared to actually act it, especially when characters are assigned on the spot as they are here. But suspend the disbelief, and it works.
The classroom play starts almost imperceptibly, beginning well before the Henry V play begins. Fifteen minutes before curtain time, while the audience is seated, the teacher arrives to prepare for class. Eventually students filter in to the performance space, and not a word is spoken for another good ten minutes until the bell rings, signaling the start of class. No extra words are added to the text to accommodate the classroom conceit. The teacher acts as the chorus, or narrator, and the students assume their given roles.
Shakespeare’s supercilious French are distinguished from the solid English by the wearing of glasses. Sports equipment serves as weapons of war. Laughs about the hockey and lacrosse weaponry extend into the “Once more into the breach” rallying cry, but audience giggles gradually tamp down as the grandeur of the language rolls over them. Later in an unexpected (and not totally successful) mix of comedy and flights of heroic poetry, there are more laughs at outrageous battles with paper airplanes and volleys of balls and trash at Agincourt.
With his easy poise and confident bearing, Michael Gregory is particularly suited to the lead role of King Henry V. This guy is an up and comer. See him now, folks, while it’s free.
Nick Martorelli does a tremendous job handling his chorus/narrator part in the history play while always maintaining his role as the class teacher. The exchanges between King Henry and Mountjoy (Bethany Ditnes) are a joy, and Eric Wunsch’s Dauphin is a kick. In fact, all in the cast bring talent and clarity to their many roles. More standouts are Amanda Bernhardt as King of France, Victoria Rose Bonito’s messenger, B.K. Elam’s Constable of France, Shaun Fury’s Governor of Harfleur, and Meredith H. Mitchell’s rogue, Nym. Thanks to the director, text coaches, and a lot of work, the actors all shine and consistently make meanings clear.
There’s a very minor downside: Over-pronounced terminal t’s, typical of the new classically trained student are in evidence. This mark both of training and recent student status can be distracting. But with time and experience, these hyper-articulated edges tend to smooth out, while good enunciation remains. One more little thing— the pigeon-toed stance of a particularly gifted actress is OK as an identifier of one character, but when it becomes a tic that extends across all the characters she plays, it is problematic. Other than these small gripes, I have no complaints. On the contrary, I was mightily impressed along with the rest of the audience.
The designers have done a good job, and the show is well turned out. Director Aaron Cromie has a knack for getting the audience not only to hang in there for Shakespeare, but to truly enjoy it. And good heavens, he knows how to ratchet up the emotional temperature and deliver impact for the big moments! As the audience fights a losing battle to hold back a tear during the king’s famed speech to his badly outnumbered men, this production soars.