A little patience, a big bunch of bloody upheaval and a colossal dose of statesmanship – and by the beginning of the 19th century, the French First Republic was the center of the solar system, boasting greater advancements in the arts, aviation, law, medicine and education for the disabled than most of the premodern world had ever seen (‘scuse me while I betray my pesky partisanship).
To look at it, you wouldn’t know it’d lost a key skirmish in The Hundred Years’ War, namely the Battle of Agincourt, which in 1415 laid France low and led to the tenuous marriage of victorious English King Henry V and Catherine of Valois, daughter of French King Charles VI.
The latter is the focus of William Shakespeare’s history play Henry V, the debut entry from New Fortune Theatre and an altogether excellent look at Shakespearean fare. Bill’s plays call for a radically different acting style – in the absence of much exposition, the performer is asked to play what’s on the page and only what’s on the page, requiring a colossal ear for dialogue and an unfailing sense of the moment. As you know, Richard Baird (late of Oregon, Arizona and Illinois following his founding tenure with San Diego’s former Poor Players) has lots more than his share of both – and amid his company’s take on history, maybe you’ll wonder what 19th-century French audiences thought of the play. After all, Bill’s scripts don’t yield a look at his Elizabethan climate so much as our own, wherever and whenever it was and is.
To hear Bill tell it, the Battle of Agincourt didn’t unfold that differently than history’s routine conflicts – a spirited taunt from France (which stupidly started the fight) led to an equally edgy response, followed by Henry’s request for divine sanction and, finally, his superiority against the French, who outmanned England. Brutal murders of the French prisoners and English infighting would follow, with Henry wallowing in his troops’ decimation and gaining their feel for him as he travels incognito. Eventually, he’ll woo Catherine to his side, proclaiming that his love of France was the key to his conquest.
The difference lies in the full-scale illumination of the kaleidoscope that is Henry. His gentle self-effacement before Kate; his warrior’s volatility alongside Fluellen, his Welsh captain; his faith in God and his devotion to duty as he saw it: His affectations are all over the map, with Baird fielding each of them like the extraordinary talent he is. Matthew Henerson’s hidebound Fluellen; Dana Hooley’s dizzy Mistress Quickly; John Tessmer’s funky Pistol (dig that crazy costume!); Jake Rosko’s headstrong Dauphin, King Charles’ son; Amanda Schaar’s persnickety Catherine, who has a crazy scene in which she fractures the English language: These and the others are standouts by themselves, and alongside Baird’s full-throated central figure, their turns are that much brighter.
The troupe’s flat, modest performance space dictates readable roughhewn images, and it gets them here with its generously scuffed surface and lights that illuminate sparse shadows. It all works except for one exceptionally glaring fault: The tricolor French flag used here is a product of the later republics – the so-called oriflamme, with its rectangle shape and pointed ends, was last flown at Agincourt, and it absolutely should have been an integral part of Justin Lang’s set. Somebody flat slipped.
The rest of the tech is fine, with Kacia Castelli’s modern military costumes evoking the combustible and outstanding Poor Players of old, although the program doesn’t mention anybody in charge of all the stage combat. Maybe co-directors Baird and Henerson assumed these duties – the blocking of the scenes is certainly a two-man job.
I said all that stuff about France in the beginning because France is one of the coolest countries in the history of the universe. That’s not a self-indulgence, either – as already mentioned, Hank loved the place so much that he had to have it for his own. Of course, he was speaking amid the eccentricity of genius, just as his playwright (endowed with the same characteristic) drew him. Baird’s embodiment imbues his castmates and his role accordingly, and this Henry V succeeds as Baird does what he does best. Man, am I glad he’s back.
This review was based on the matinee performance of Nov. 2. Henry V runs through Nov. 9 at BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest. $35. newfortunetheatre.com.