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‘Henry V’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Noble production, except His Majesty is missing

Submitted by on May 23, 2014 – 10:51 pm

Henry V (Harry Judge) exults as his troops rout the French at Agincourt. (Liz Lauren)Review: “Henry V” by William Shakespeare, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through June 15. ★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Chicago Shakespeare’s vivacious production of “Henry V” poses something of a paradox: Much of its energy emanates from the youthful presence of Canadian import Harry Judge as the king – and what is least remarkable about this show is Judge’s surface-skimming account of the embattled monarch. 

Harry Judge portrays King Henry V at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. (Liz Lauren)Indeed, this “Henry V” directed by Christopher Luscombe offers a great deal to admire and savor, from the wit and gravitas of a deep and experienced cast to battle scenes of exceptional veracity and a fetching aspect of sets and costumes.

Judge also began well as the young king still being measured by his own courtiers in light of his infamous early years, time misspent carousing with the likes of Sir John Falstaff and his fellow tavern rabble.

You could feel the assessing eyes on Henry at the outset, when an emissary from the king of France presented him with the contemptuous gift of a crate of tennis balls. Henry, having resolved to reclaim France for England as he believes it is his hereditary right to do, answers the insult measure for measure, and Judge delivered that edged riposte with sly confidence and cutting clarity.

But this early promise was not borne out by most of Judge’s ensuing performance, which tended toward a kind of buoyant recitation where reflection and weight were needed.

The French Princess (Laura Rook) and King Henry V (Harry Judge) rise above the language barrier for love. (Liz Lauren)His scarcely inflected rhetoric deflated three of the most imposing and brilliant scenes Shakespeare wrote for Henry – at the siege of Harfleur, the king’s lonely ruminations on the eve of Agincourt and, preeminently, the St. Crispin’s Day speech on the morning of Agincourt when Henry tells his tremendously outnumbered troops that, when this battle is remembered, they will count themselves lucky to have been among these “happy few,” this band of brothers.

Yet Judge’s youthful esprit served him well in a disarming encounter with Laura Rook’s French Princess Katherine, as he tries to pierce the language barrier to propose marriage and she summons her fractional English to comprehend and reply.

Brett Tuomi plays Bardolph in Chicago Shakespeare's 'Henry V.' (Liz Lauren)Hardly less charming, and very funny, was Rook’s earlier scene of the Princess’ famous English lesson with her valiant lady-in-waiting (Sally Wingert), the latter more confident than secure in her own English. In this litany of body-part translations, where finger comes out fangre and elbow is misconstrued delbow, Wingert’s faithful tutor soberly intones words for foot and dress that could only have been learned from English sailors – who would later have laughed themselves silly.

This is a solid and rewarding cast – apart from Judge’s problematic king, if such an exception can be allowed. Too bad we aren’t looking at a play about the king’s spirited Welsh military captain Fluellen. James Newcomb brings to this substantial and colorful role the lusty bearing of a seasoned soldier. Newcomb cuts an infectious figure on stage, and when he speaks there’s a worldly man’s wisdom in his words.

Though old Sir John Falstaff’s death is reported early in “Henry V,” three of his loutish fellows – Bardolph, Nym and Pistol – endure as earthy delights in the persons of Bret Tuomi, Larry Neumann Jr. and Greg Vinkler, whose posturing, prancing, bragging Pistol even makes one forget that their fat friend has passed from sight.

Pistol (Greg Vinkler, left) affirms his friendship with Nym (Larry Neumann Jr.) in 'Henry V.' (Liz Lauren)Vinkler also does a noble turn as the French king, Charles VI, and a convincing reversal of types it is. With the French monarch’s first speech, Vinkler displayed the shape and contemplative pulse essential to creating a credible monarch.

Then there was Samuel Taylor’s deliciously ridiculous portrayal of the French Dauphin, the young prince whose self-important and yet wondrously trivial bloviating renders him an object of derision at court and on the battlefield. Taylor makes of the Dauphin not a caricature but rather a dull-witted, spoiled boy – and the more fascinating for his credibility.

This is a “Henry V” of epic stage scale, majestic and, in its dark fashion, splendorous. Costume designer Mariann E. Verheyen has tricked out both armies in somber weeds of war, and muted hues prevail in Kevin Depinet’s set design. Matt Hawkins’ fight choreography for Agincourt is as complex and engaging as any I can recall, though it makes a sudden, brief shift into slow motion that serves mainly to shatter the spell of realism.

On balance, for its many strengths, Chicago Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is worth a visit.

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