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NIPPERTOWN: HVSF’S “HENRY V” Creatively Crowns a New Leader

Nippertown - Music, Arts and Culture News for the Albany AreaOriginally published on June 10, 2023 on Nippertown by Patrick White.

What does it do to Shakespeare’s rousing patriotic play Henry V play to cast Henry with a woman? Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is asking this summer how does it make us see this play anew and look at leadership in new and different ways? Certainly, Henry V in the hands of the extraordinary Emily Ota contains multitudes and takes us on this long journey of a sovereign gaining their stature and forging a “band of brothers” from her disparate subjects. What can we learn from Shakespeare’s king in uniting our own fractious populace to face the crises we must?

Timothy Bright, Kurt Rhoads, Emily Ota, Omar Shafiuzzaman, Nance Williamson/T. Charles Erickson

One thing is for certain in Davis McCallum’s production, imagination and creativity are the way to marshal your theater company to tell Shakespeare’s story. In their tent in Garrison in the round this year surrounded by audience on all four sides this company of 16 will “ascend the brightest heaven of invention” as Shakespeare’s Chorus (the indispensable Sean McNall) puts it in the prologue. With no set, two chairs placed up audience aisles representing the warring thrones and music provided from the cast and thrillingly by two drummers playing buckets in the far corners of the audience. You are immersed in the action and adventurous storytelling as never before. You were never far from the thrill at Hudson Valley’s shows but this Henry V will change your heart rate in the best way. If this were at a multiplex we would call it an Action Shakespeare but of course, IMAX’s got nothing on HVSF.

In Shakespeare’s tale of a warrior king who leads his country into battle against a formidable rival, we see King Henry V forged under fire, challenged and changed by his experiences at war. Emily Ota is sensational in the role. She commands attention and the troops with “Once more unto the breech,” empathizes as an active listener with “a touch of Harry in the night” and gives thanks to God for all who survived. It’s a powerful, soulful, captivating portrait of a leader responsive and changed by calamitous ordeal and we feel lucky that the country and this play had such a person in charge.

There is a scene that glistens wit invention, humor and charm amid all the battlefield preparations and execution and that is Princess Katherine (Omar Shafiuzzaman) learning English from an old gentlewoman, Alice (Nance Williamson), which McCallum has set on a tennis court. The court is suggested by two chairs alongside each other and facing in opposite directions and the game is played relying only on the actor’s physical concentration and imaginary endowment of the ball volleying back and forth as Shakespeare has them trading words, delightful.

Nance Williamson & Omar Shafiuzzaman/T. Charles Erickson

The French are given a wicked drubbing in this production. Their losses on the fields of Agincourt may be grievous but that’s nothing like the fun had at their expense with everything from their supercilious manner to their movement to the audacious costumes, extraordinary work by costumer Anya Klepikova. It’s easy to identify them because they all travel in 100 shades of blue, from robin’s egg to periwinkle blue and are great fun to have around. The Dauphin comes on like a surfer dude with Stephen Michael Spencer giving him a gnarly aspect and flinging his sky-blue cape over his shoulder like a trusty beach towel.  The Constable of Carl Howell is looking fiercely chic in a Chanel inspired Eisenhower jacket and cop sunglasses. Best of all is the regiment on horseback out in the fields. They enter from outside the tent with blue football shoulder pads and feathers poking out of their blue bicycle helmets while galloping, which is accomplished by pushing their feet down on a long elastic bridle that they grip. A triumphant cavalry…at least in the audience’s hearts.

Henry V as filmed by Olivier during World War II was used to rouse the nation’s patriotic resolve. It certainly roused me on one of the first weekends of the summer season yo the power of theatrical ingenuity. It’s a richly imaginative, physically inventive, thrilling take on Shakespeare that had me cheering the originality of the stagecraft.

Henry V runs through 8/21. www.hvshakespeare.org