Young actors bring an irresistible, playful energy to the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre.

By J. Cooper Robb
Posted Aug. 10, 2010

Who says you need to train for decades to perform Shakespeare? Under the tutelage of hypercreative director Aaron Cromie, a group of student actors brings youthful energy to Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s joyously theatrical and thoroughly exciting production of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

The nine student actors, members of PST’s Classical Acting Academy, have spent the last six weeks immersed in Shakespeare, and the results are impressive to say the least. While the performances don’t quite unearth the musicality of Shakespeare’s text, the director wisely doesn’t try to put on a text-based production. Instead, as in his magnificently original staging of The Fantasticks at now-defunct Mum Puppettheatre, Cromie’s Henry V is a charmingly theatrical affair. It takes full advantage of the cast’s youthful exuberance, and the director is clearly very skilled at getting strong performances from young actors.

Cromie sets the play in a prep-school classroom (realized in full detail by scenic designer Faezeh Faezipour with maps, scientific charts, desks and a blackboard used to announce locations in the play) where the students are preparing to take an exam. As part of their lesson, their teacher (who performs the part of the Chorus and is portrayed by Nick Martorelli) has the students adopt roles from Henry V.

The last of the Bard’s English history plays (with the exception of Henry VIII, which may or may not have been written entirely by Shakespeare), Henry V paints a portrait of a hero king intent on reclaiming what he believes is rightfully his: France. Needless to say, the French aren’t wild about this idea, and when Henry (Michael Gregory) shows up with an army beset by illness, the haughty French are confident they will repel the English with ease. Not so.

Cromie has emerged as one of the city’s most original directors. In addition to Henry V and Fantasticks, he helmed Azuka Theater’s powerful staging of The Long Christmas Ride Home and Lantern Theatre’s playful production of Scapin. A master at innovation, in Henry V he shows his skill at getting strong performances from young actors.

As created by Shakespeare and performed by Gregory, Henry is Superman with a crown. He’s charming, patriotic (almost to the point of xenophobia), clever, athletic, handsome, and, when he isn’t threatening to murder every Frenchman alive, chivalrous. Gregory embraces all these qualities with ease, and, some minor articulation problems aside, he makes a winning king.

PST’s production doesn’t bother much with the inner workings of Henry’s mind, his motives or his level of sincerity. Is he going to war because he has been insulted by the French, to regain lost territory and prove his worth as king or is it a tactic to blunt opposition at home? We’re never sure, but he certainly is charming.

What Henry doesn’t do here is completely dominate the production, a very good thing considering the quality of the supporting cast (most of whom switch in and out of several roles) and the innovation of the production.

Brian K. Elam is fabulous as barfly Pistol, and Bethany Ditnes shows impressive versatility playing both the beleaguered French herald and Princess Katherine. Victoria Rose Bonito steals every scene she’s in as Katherine’s blushing maid, who hesitantly serves as translator for Henry and the Princess, who speaks only French; it’s especially true in the scene where Henry, who speaks only English, must rely on the maid to communicate his charm secondhand, woo Katherine and unite their nations. The Archbishop of Canterbury is similarly well-cast; the hugely promising Amanda Bernhardt argues for Henry’s claim to France using transparencies on an overhead projector, and the production is full of other such charming visual jokes.

Drinks in a tavern are served in Gatorade bottles, and when the English show up for battle, they’re equipped with football-gear armor and armed with golf clubs, baseball bats, lacrosse sticks and tennis racquets (appropriate, considering the Dauphin demeans Henry earlier in the play with a gift of tennis balls). The famous battle of Agincourt is a rambunctious event; overhead lamps sway madly from side to side and paper airplanes are employed to divebomb the French position.

Although the production rides on its youthful energy, the young cast performs the occasional serious moments and dramatic scenes surprisingly well. When a disguised Henry engages his troops on the eve of battle, the actors capture the sense of dread and excitement as the men (several of whom are portrayed by actresses in plaid schoolgirl skirts) await a day that will bring either death or victory. In this moment, you can feel the camaraderie of a cast that has spent the last six weeks together immersed in the world of the play, and the sense of companionship between Henry and his soldiers is deeply felt.

Henry V, with its vivid portrayals of war and episodic structure is perhaps Shakespeare’s most cinematic play. The chorus calls on us to use our “imaginary forces” to envision the battlefields of France, and aided by lighting designer David Todaro, fight choreographer Brian Cowden and sound designer Paul Winnick, Cromie fills our heads with images of charging steeds, wounded soldiers and warring armies.

Although Cromie’s Henry V borders at times on being too cute, the show is so inventive and enjoyable that it’s easy to forgive the production’s excesses. Best of all, this fun and frenzied production is free, making Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s Henry V by far the best theater deal in town at the moment.

Henry V
Through Aug. 15.
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
2111 Sansom St