Henry V – King and Country

(Pic from Shealyn Jae Photography)


*This is The Bad Oracle’s “family matters” disclosure: someone involved in this production is related to or the partner of a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle.  

*This is The Bad Oracle’s “staff pass” disclosure: someone involved in this production is a member of the staff of The Bad Oracle. The individual did not write or participate in writing this review.

These are exceptions to our usual disclaimer(s), which is why they are here.

I admit, I was deeply afraid that Cohesion’s Henry V was going to be fucking silly.  Setting it in the Tug Valley, West Virginia of 1882 seems like the type of concept that’s more suited to a condescending Hee Haw sketch (hicks performing Shakespeare, “tah bee or not tah bee, that thar’s the question”) than a quality performance we’re supposed to take seriously.  My fears were not immediately allayed.  On walking in, I found a group of uncommonly beautiful people sitting around singing in a tableau that skewed more “Tom Sawyer Island at the Magic Kingdom” than “ruggedly authentic” in aesthetic.  That was, of course, before anyone started talking.  As is more usual than not, especially with this company, oh, how dead wrong am I.  This shit is fascinating, it’s palpably exciting and it works so well on so many levels that I want to give directors Alice Stanley and Jane Jongeward a big group hug for thinking it up in the first place.  Yep.  It’s good.  It’s really good.  Y’all.

Let’s dive in on that accent, number one.  I have a pretty good ear for accents, and it was uneven, sure, but man, does that twang really jive with the text.  There are some linguistic theories which suggest Appalachian English may be a derivative of Elizabethan English; watching this production seems to give that line of reasoning some heft (consider, for example, the word “afeared”).  It’s natural, it rolls, and Stanley/Jongeward clearly have devoted a non-insubstantial amount of digging and research to be able to coach these guys.  In fact, I found the story rather easier to follow than normal, which is a blessing, since Henry, with it’s approximately eight bazillion characters, can be a challenge.

So, accent, check, let’s look at themes.  Again, I was initially skeptical reading the director’s note, which includes this passage:  “Why do we allow the support of institutions such as monarchy to legitimize violence?  Why do we excuse or even support violence done for national pride, and condemn violence done for individual or family pride?”  Easy, thinks I, because it’s a matter of power and scope.  When the family down the street starts shooting at their next door neighbors, it doesn’t have the power to affect my day-to-day life.  It’s a curiosity.  When kings or presidents start bumping up against other countries, well, that’s different.  It has enormous opportunity to harm me:  I might get sent to fight, my family might starve, my partner may be locked up.  If something has that much power over my me, then yes, I’m going to legitimize it, I have to believe it’s all for something, or else I go insane.  Henry V, though, curiously, seems to be both pro and anti-violence, depending on which way you look at it, and bringing it down to earth like this does, honestly, work.  Just because I want to believe that the terrifying results of political squabbling are bearable because they are in service to a higher power (my GOD, my NATION) doesn’t mean that’s actually true.  Maybe there is nothing higher.  Maybe it’s all just feuding hillbillies.

Zach Bopst, as the titular Henry, does incredibly powerful and interesting work with the character.  Like Caitlin Carbone in last year’s Hamlet, also from Cohesion, he is not intimidated by some of the most notorious words Shakespeare ever penned (I hate when you can tell that a performer is “setting up” for a well-known speech, it takes you frustratingly out of the play).  No, Bopst could not possibly be more natural as the asshole king.  He’s strong and flippant by turns, at once seeming to genuinely care for the common people suffering for his impulsive decision to invade France and also not giving a flying fuck about them.  He’s more than solid all the way through, but two places will give you the chills:  the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, in which Henry rallies his troops to fight, and the end scene where he takes “possession” of France through forcibly marrying the princess, Katherine (Micaela Mannix).  Bopst uses these two pieces to, crucially, drive home the opposing sides of Henry:  the fearless, inspiring leader and the raping, despotic war criminal.  Well done.

Supporting cast is excellent, also.  Meghan Stanton is fucking fantastic as the impassive Exeter, playing the stoic and watchful lieutenant to awesome effect (that woman has a glare on her that would freeze lava).  Caitlin Carbone does a broad version of the French Dauphin that had the potential to stray too yokel for my taste if it wasn’t tempered by the deft contrast of Chara Bauer’s poor Constable, charged with keeping tabs on the prince, who is a little touched in the brainpan.  Lance Bankerd brings emotional shades to “The Storyteller”, going from apologetic friend at the beginning of the play to haunted witness by the end.  Barbara Hauck turns down normally super-comic Fluellen a touch, bringing some The Good, Bad and the Ugly to the loyal Welsh captain (love that toothpick!).  Lyle Smythers has some doddering fun with thievin’ Pistol, especially when paired with Katharine Vary’s warm but practical Hostess.  Matthew Casella turns on a dime from dim Nim to flinty Montjoy, messenger of the French king, and ratchets up tension in later encounters with Henry, after diplomacy goes rather south.  I’m never NOT going to adore Daniel Douek, he’s delightful, here giving Captain Gower a “backwoods preacher” feel.  Micaela Mannix spins out a few kinds of terror as Boy/Princess Katherine and Nancy Linden is striking, especially as the French King, I just wish she’d nailed the accent a little harder.

The show is technically beautiful.  I think this is the most lovely set I’ve seen from Cassandra Dutt, open and airy as a mountain day.  I like how she uses the bones of things, houses, trees, as suggestions, it’s all so transparent and fluid.  Costumes by Heather Johnston are similarly thoughtful and well pulled together, they just need to be dirtied up (we’re supposed to believe that these are people who probably own one set of clothes, but with those sharp creases, I ain’t buyin’ it).  Lana Riggins works her magic yet again and lights sensitively for the most part, even though the “red of war” is a little much.  There’s no sound director listed, but if there were, I’d advise that individual to turn down that fucking bird, we get it.  It’s a bird.

BOTTOM LINE:  Cohesion’s Henry V by way of Appalachia isn’t an obvious choice, but it’s a fucking good one.  Studied, thoughtful direction gives the show flight, and once it takes off, there’s no stopping it.  Laser-targeted performances (especially from the leading man) provide weight while resisting the slightest whiff of a gimmick or a joke.  Engaging, specific, interestingly designed and exceptionally acted.  I loved it.

Henry V is playing at Cohesion’s space, United Evangelical Church, until March 26th.



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