reference to his Globe Theatre, Shakespeare asked, 'Can this cockpit hold
the vasty fields of France?' Making do with an even smaller cockpit, the
Shotgun Players answer with a resounding 'Aye!' Despite a miniscule stage
and minimalist costumes, they bring Henry V to life.
There is little of the overflowing earnestness that cripples so many local productions of Shakespeare on view here; instead, director Patrick Dooley's adaptation, which includes passages from both Henry IV plays in an effort to ease viewers into the storyline, is taut and muscular, with snappy visuals - including black, utilitarian costumes and sets - and generally no-nonsense acting. It's a winning combination, a low-budget show that competes well with the most extravagant local stagings of Shakespeare's work. Usually artists of all stripes take decades to learn how to succeed in avoiding clutter, to produce something both rich and spare; Dooley and the young Shotgun Players do so here with little evident struggle. Dylan Kussman is especially effective in the title role, and if the talent level falls off a little after that, it's not enough to distract from this production's increasingly enveloping power.
Bay Express, December 19, 1997
The Shotgun Players' spare, crisp version of Henry V, under the direction of Patrick Dooley, was a welcome exception to the kind of passive Shakespeare productions I see so often.
Crossing the Bard (II)
It's pretty easy to pull off mediocre Shakespeare; witness the Much Ado About Nothing touring local parks. The dialogue is snappy, the settings exotic, and there's usually war. But staging great Shakespeare, the kind of theater that thunders with legendary language and character, is a much rarer thing. And what an unlikely place to find it: in the basement of a fast-food pizzeria-taqueria; in a minuscule space where the industrial dishwasher above rumbles like the English army moving toward Agincourt. It's the last place you'd expect to see the epic Henry V. With 40 speaking characters plus assorted lords, ladies, officers, soldiers, citizens, messengers, and attendants, and at least 12 different settings -- not scene changes, but locations -- Henry V is not the poor man's Shakespeare. The Branagh film reflects the way we usually see the play staged: with stylish medieval velvet and leather, thigh-high boots, and chain mail forged by the local Society for Creative Anachronism.
Patrick Dooley and his Shotgun Players have a different vision of Henry V, one that feeds on the appeal of Henry's accessible greatness but is free of the costumed romanticism. All decorative ornaments have been stripped away. The set is black. The one set piece is two joined black boxes, and the actors wear black jeans with matching cotton shirts. One at a time the performers enter, humming the kind of atonal buzz that actors use as vocal warm-ups, before erupting into the opening lines. As understated as the production is, the first moments make absolutely clear the primacy of language and voice in Shotgun's version of the show. Hand props are sparse, used only when they contribute something to the understanding of the play, or to punctuate a visual image in the verse.
As often as Henry V has been performed decked out in velour and brocade, there are several lines in the text that seem to beg for minimalist interpretation. Consider the opening chorus, which asks the audience to fill in what cheap backdrops can't accomplish: "For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our Kings/ Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times." Who needs castles and tapestries? Why not imitate the metonymy of the poetry in the playing of it?
The occasional splash of color in this monochromatic England comes from strips of blue and red cloth used as scrolls, hoods, and fire. Collars of red differentiate King Henry's upper-level advisers from the pub swine. These same swatches of fabric become the hoods of the conniving clergy who goad Henry into declaring war on France. Such small alterations are both economical and elegant in the way they illustrate how class conflict underlies the paradox of the populist Henry. We like Shakespeare's character because he fraternized with the little people as crown prince in the Henry IVs. But as Henry the King, our hero can't be chummy with the minions who still lovingly follow him around -- he approves the hanging of old friend Bardolph to prove he has matured. Dylan Kussman is excellent as a remorseful but still slightly despotic young king intoxicated with his new power. Kussman looks green enough to remember the days when he was carried home from the bar; he's uncomfortable with the formalities of the throne, but charming when wooing the princess of France.
The rest of the cast supports him ably. With everyone but Kussman playing three or more roles there are both weak links and pleasant surprises. As the French prince, the Dauphin, Reid Davis is giddy, slightly campy, and every bit as capricious as he accuses his rival Henry of being. And when Beth Donohue launches into a Scottish accent as Capt. Fluellen, at first she seems like a wild caricature out of proportion with the cool minimalism elsewhere in the show. But like the rest of this remarkable production, she wins the audience over with her simple and dedicated performance.