Originally published on July 25, 2023 in Chronogram by
When settling in to watch one of Shakespeare’s history plays, expectations run toward battles, murders, and weighty ruminations. What you might not expect—humor. “Henry V,” one of this season’s offerings at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, manages to do both quite well. Imagine, if you will, French cavalry storming the battlefield from the hill outfitted in bike helmets and football pads, pawing the sandy field on their imaginary steeds, and you begin to appreciate what Artistic Director Davis MacCullum and a cast of 16, led by the impressive Emily Ota, have re-envisioned for this notable work.
As the play opens, the young king Henry, assured that he has a right to claim the throne of France, receives an envoy from the French Dauphin, who mocks Henry’s youthful exuberance with a gift of tennis balls, prompting Henry to mount a military expedition to France to seize the throne.
“Henry V” is a play which has been open to much interpretation over the years. A paradox exists in the character of Henry, as he first urges mercy at the Battle of Harfleur and then rages and demands blood at Agincourt. Is Henry divine sovereign, claiming his rightful due to the throne of France? Or is he a blood-thirsty conqueror, willing to commit atrocities that expressly go against the law of arms? MacCullum, who directs the show, is clearly leaning toward the latter interpretation. The HVSF version does not shrink away from the fact that the original text has Henry commanding his troops to slit the throats of all their prisoners, and threaten the mayor of Harfleur with “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.”
Ota, in her turn as Henry, brings fire to the performance. There is no ambivalence here. As she struts and pounds and whips her followers into a frenzy, it is clear that this is a Henry that will do whatever necessary to take the throne. This Henry knows what he wants; no milksop he.
If there is a fault in this performance, it is in Ota bringing too much energy to the portrayal. She displays outrage at the onset and leaves herself with very little room to maneuver. Quiet deliberateness can often be more powerful and frightening than infuriated wrath. Indeed, it is difficult for Ota to sustain this fury, and she is noticeably hoarse by the third act. She shines in the quieter moments, such as when Henry dons a disguise and creeps about the camp speaking to his subjects the night before battle. As Ota reflects on the burden of leadership, wistfully envious of the sleep that private men enjoy, we see the Henry who deserves to wear the crown.
“Henry V” as staged by HVSF does not merely bring the fire and brimstone. There is a good deal of humor peppered throughout. In particular, Steven Michael Spencer, as the Dauphin, turns in a memorable performance that is part “the Dude” from The Big Lebowski, part yacht-rock chill. Lennon Xin Wen Hu as the sycophantic Orleans, and Carl Howell as the French Constable join Spencer in a pre-battle scene in which discussion of their armor, horses, and mistresses reduces the audience to riotous cackling. Melissa Mahoney as the gum-cracking Hostess Quickly is a delight, and the sight of grown men prancing about on imaginary horses like so many kindergarten children is a great moment.
Played with no set at all, save two chairs, the production relies on lighting, sound effects, and choreography to great effect. The battle at Agincourt is a stand-out piece of staging. An intimate, theater-in-the round arrangement of 500 or so chairs ensures that everyone has a good seat to view the action. “Section 400” promises an interactive experience, as the young lady who found her purse and phone “borrowed” by the Boy, as played by Sean McNall, can attest.
Shakespeare, open-air under a tent, seems to me to be the perfect way to enjoy the Bard’s work. With a beautiful vista overlooking the mountains, visitors are encouraged to come early and picnic, and a storage area is provided for you to leave your picnic provisions while you view the show. The concession stand will provide picnic fare, which can be ordered ahead of time on the website. The elevated concession offerings can be ordered-ahead for intermission. Restroom accommodations are in the form of clean and well-tended toilet trailers. Parking is in the field, and the path down is lengthy; however, golf cart service to and from the parking area is provided if you so wish.
One key thing to keep in mind to make your theater experience more pleasant—it is summer, and you are outdoors. Under the tent, it is warm, and often buggy. Bug spray, provided at the tent entrance, is highly recommended. The chance to experience Shakespeare, done well, by Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, is well worth the risk of a few mosquito bites.
“Henry V” will be performed through August 27, alternating with “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” so check the website for available dates. Shows daily, except Tuesday, at 7:30pm. Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is located at 2015 Route 9, in Garrison. The show’s run time is 2 hours and 45 minutes with a 10-minute intermission.