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Sunday, June 10, 2012

OSF 2012: Henry V (review)


illo by Catherine Change
not official OSF but I like it a lot.
This fabulous production directed by Joseph Haj, has opened with the summer season on the Elizabethan Stage and I'll say it flat-out: this is the best version of the play that I've ever seen. And I've seen quite a few. I feel very fortunate to have seen Henry IV part 1 (reviewed here) and part 2 (reviewed here and here) -- and now this, all three with the wonderful John Tufts taking Hal through his many changes. 

The humanity and intelligence Tufts brings to the role has been the touchstone throughout the trilogy, through all the changes in directors and designers; Tufts somehow had the heart of Henry from the beginning and carried it throughout with clarity, depth, humor, and a degree of compassion that's at times, when he chooses (or his fate requires him?) to do terrible things, just short of too much for a viewer to bear. Magnificent!

In fact every role seems fully rounded, each character the center of the story when that one speaks. There wasn't a moment when I wasn't totally caught up in the story. As always, OSF brings a wonderful clarity and passion to Shakespeare's astonishing plays. It just gets better and better, for me. These must be the best dramaturgs in the world.

John Tufts IS Henry V
This play, like this year's Troilus and Cressida (which is also amazing in its way; no excuse for not reviewing that yet, as I've seen it twice already) makes the realities of war clear and reaches right down into the conscience and moral centers of the viewer and gives a good shake. From reminders of inevitable atrocities upon civilians, to timeless examples of impossible choices, in both these productions war is seen as it is by the soldiers and civilians experiencing it, not by those comfortably profiting by it back home. Even as he tells the typical victor's version of the war--it was justified under law; the atrocities were begun by the other side; the conquered were shown mercy by the victor; no looting was done; God was on the victor's side; everyone lived happily ever after in a happy marriage of peace; the other side was silly, arrogant and degenerate; the winning side suffered few casualties--Shakespeare also shows, or hints at, the lie in those myths through examples of narrowly averted but plausible actions, contrary events and satirical language--and if you didn't hear all that, the final words of the play make it clear that the victory will prove to be hollow in the next generation. Again I marvel at how much Shakespeare crammed into his texts, that they can be interpreted in so many ways over the years - and at how uncannily OSF seems to find in them what is most meaningful to me

Besides fully conveying the shocking aspects of human behavior in war, and satirizing its causes even as he respects the stubborn honor of (some of) those who carry it out, Shakespeare also mixes in humor--and in this production, either it was toned down and much easier to take, or the lines that have come down to us just never got as out of hand as they did in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. In any case, I chuckled more in this production - and the set piece at the end, always an audience-pleaser, where Henry and Katherine get to know each other and he woos her, is in this production one of the finest comedy pieces I've ever seen. Beautifully played!
(note: seeing this play the second time from Row Q this scene was no less amusing - but I wouldn't have used the word "comedy;" I think that came from sitting very close the first time, and seeing all the subtle facial expressions. Either way, it works as the intended much-needed release and a sure-fire way to send the audience home happy, even given the final lines of the play--which underline the mixed messages Shakespeare has given us throughout, and which this director makes so heartrendingly clear.)

John Tufts as Henry and Brooke Parks as Katherine come to an understanding,
(Note the ensemble -- the lady has lovely taste.) 

Bravo to everyone involved in this production. A special shout-out for Todd Barton's music and sound design, played throughout onstage by the apparently indefatigable percussionist and music designer Kelvin Underwood. It was perfect, bringing the experience up in intensity and focus, but never overwhelming the words on the stage. (I'm so sorry Barton will be leaving OSF after this season! OSF seems very rich in composers and musicians, but still, there will never be another Barton.) The set and costumes were just the right mix of starkness and era-mixing, bringing out the subtleties and universality of the text--and like the music, without overwhelming it (except maybe in the encampment scene, when it rained - but it wasn't too much). I can't wait to see this one again, which I'll be doing in a couple of weeks.

One final note, about "The Boy" (played by Christine Albright): I've never seen a production where this essential, pathetic figure, an anonymous victim of war (and also of society, for he might have had a better life, intelligent as he was, but instead he was destined to a low life and early death), was more movingly portrayed. (Were those "unarmed boys" in the luggage train even counted in the final reckoning of the dead? Are they among the "unnamed" ones?) I wonder if one of the many writers now specializing in literary fan fiction has written a novel yet in which The Boy is the central character, and the story of Henry V told from his point of view. If someone hasn't written it, someone should.

Update: Here's another review I just came across that explains more about why this production works so well: http://bloggingashland.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/the-return-of-the-king/

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