While The Production Company has cleverly overcome some of the obstacles presented by Shakespeare’s rarely performed history play, “Henry VI, Part I,” it can’t make up for the fact that in almost three hours, the script offers little more than monotonous scenes of court and battle.
The play chronicles a dense section of British history. King Henry V has died, leaving his juvenile son in charge of a country at war. In France, another youngster, Joan of Arc—more devilish than saintly, by Shakespeare’s account—is raising armies against the English. Family feuds develop, allegiances are sworn, and power hungry lords and dukes make their moves.
Director Christopher William Johnson deserves credit for fitting the Hundred Years War into a black box theater with some creative staging. When British soldiers scale the side of a French fortress, a wall materializes from a cleverly designed curtain; when Edmund Mortimer (Charles M. Howell IV) recounts his family history, masked actors appear to mime the scenes; and when Joan sees celestial visions, the audience sees an impressive, enormous puppet. The strongest choice in this production is the inclusion of singing between scenes to help to set the mood and keep the audience awake. The play opens and closes with solemn hymns that the cast performs beautifully under Daniel Halden’s choral direction.
Other directorial choices and design elements in the show are less effective. One battle scene happens in cheesy slow motion without reason. The costumes designed by Will Brattain highlight budgetary constraints without giving much sense of character, time period, or visual themes. And while Johnson’s choice to have the French characters speak with accents helps the audience keep track of who’s who, it gives his actors one more thing to struggle with.
The actors in this production have tackled the Shakespearean language but they haven’t established their characters. They know what they’re talking about; they just don’t know who they are. Alex Elliott-Funk, who gives a hint of his character’s grumpiness as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, is an exception, as is Christopher Carver, who brings amusing lustiness to the stage as the Earl of Suffolk. As spirited Joan, Tina Van Berckelaer makes some of the boldest acting choices in the show, though they don’t always work.
The trickiest task these actors face is that of making a long play engaging. Shakespeare’s script is one of wordy, repetitive scenes and this cast falls victim to that repetitiveness. Scene-to-scene and character-to-character, they have found only one note to strike. In large part, acting in this show amounts to conveying sadness by yelling, declaring patriotism by yelling, and expressing anger by yelling very loudly. These actors need to make more exciting, varied choices or they risk losing not only their voices, but their audience.
Critics Score: C