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Off-Off-Broadway Review

Henry V

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Henry V
Photo Source: Miranda Arden
Don't expect a complete or even intelligible rendition of "Henry V," Shakespeare's 1599 history play about the battling youthful king and quondam carouser Prince Hal, here. The physical sweep and wide-ranging movement of the production's characters and spectators preclude it. The presenter, New York Classical Theatre, prides itself on what it calls "panoramic theater," in which casts and audiences stay on the move in existing spaces that are not theaters. This time the company has been overly ambitious, beginning the play's exposition at Castle Clinton in Battery Park and then ferrying over to Governors Island (standing in for France) for the real action, including the Battle of Agincourt. The twilight ferry ride across New York Harbor (a truncated English Channel) is a delight, alone worth the price of admission—which is nothing. The lovely firefly-bedecked island, which appropriately dates its military history back to the 1600s, is enchanting. But because the audience is both large and slower than the actors, scenes often begin before the majority of spectators have arrived on site. Scenes on the boat in both directions are lost to all but a few patrons who happen to be nearby. As there are no seats anywhere but on the ferry, the audience stands or sits on the ground, which seems to take up even more time. Thus director Stephen Burdman serves more as a camp counselor or cruise director, herding his cast of 40 and hundreds of spectators to and through the various venues.

Even when the entire audience is completely gathered around the "stage" of the moment, audibility and accents prove to be a sometime thing. It helps to know at least the basics of the story before you literally attempt to follow it. The bones are here: The callow King Henry V (whom almost everyone calls Harry) is attempting to prove his worthiness as monarch and to overcome his misspent youth and his father's usurpation of the throne from Richard II. Henry decides, for trumped-up reasons, to add France to his kingdom. Although outnumbered five to one by the French, he wins the battle of Agincourt, then seals the merger by wooing and winning Princess Katherine, the daughter of the French king. Because Harry's former sidekick from the "Henry IV" plays, Sir John Falstaff, has died, the only comic relief is provided by Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, three former evil companions the king has ditched who enlist in the war effort anyway. The three aren't as funny as the fat, witty one was. Shakespeare's text has been abridged, and many instructional lines to the audience have been added, such as "This way to Harry, King of England." The entire emended enterprise takes two and a half hours, including the ferry rides in both directions.

Justin Blanchard makes an appealing King Henry, and he understands—perhaps with the help of voice/speech coach Joan Melton—that "England" has two gs in it when you pronounce it. But he doesn't bother with Anglicizing such frequently heard words as "France" and "master." The French accents are all atrocious. Fight director Shad Ramsey is to be commended for doing double duty as a last-minute replacement as Pistol and for learning all his lines so fast (he was announced as being "on book" but wasn't). Yet his accent, a sort of down-market West Midlands Slavic, is inexplicable. Among those few actors who speak appropriately and project well is Charles David Goforth, who plays the Welshman Fluellen. Amelia Dombrowski's period costumes are quite splendid.

Just approach it all as a no-tariff night off the town, with Shakespearean accompaniments, and you'll be fine.

Presented by New York Classical Theatre as part of the River to River Festival at Battery Park and Governors Island, NYC. July 6–24. Schedule varies. (212) 945-0505 or www.rivertorivernyc.com for info. Casting by Stephanie Klapper.

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