Imagining Henry V

Folger Production Gives Weight to Whimsy

King Henry (Zach Appelman) and Katherine of France (Katie deBuys) learn to speak the same language.

In Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” a newly minted king, fresh from a dissolute youth spent in the company of disreputable characters, leads his country to new heights – dealing decisively with traitors, rogues, and the French royalty who underestimate him, and uniting England and France to begin an era of peace. It’s a heavy reflection on the costs of war and the burden of leadership, but under the direction of Robert Richmond creative flourishes enliven the ponderous play. From beginning to end his production turns the limitations of the Folger Theatre’s awkward little stage to advantage with inventive devices that let the imagination loose.

With 48 characters and scenes spanning the English and French kings’ palaces, London’s streets, military base camps, and the battlefields of France, for more than 400 years “Henry V” has inspired elaborate sets, video backdrops, and even the on-location realism of Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film. But Richmond brings the play back to its fundamentals, enlisting a cast of just 13 actors to embody all the parts on a spare set of rustic timbers. Even Mariah Hale’s fine costumes place the actors firmly in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, dispensing with any pretense of recreating the clothing of 1415 or any other period that could be cleverly linked to the play’s enduring themes.

The prologue, beautifully rendered along with other illuminating soliloquies by Richard Sheridan Willis as the Chorus, asks the questions that define the evening. “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

The answer is an emphatic yes, which makes this production a purist’s delight. The power of suggestion prevails. When two bishops ride to London, they simply bounce rhythmically on the backs of sawhorses made of two-by-fours fitted with reins. When Henry V takes to his throne, he positions himself regally on a bench atop a tiny platform, stage right. When three traitors hang, death is signaled when they jolt and rise to their tiptoes with the slight tightening of their nooses.

And instead of a soundtrack, it’s the exuberant fiddle, delicate harp, and haunting soprano of Jessica Witchger that heighten the action and emotion. She moves around the stage like an earthbound fairy, and her music alone is worth the price of admission.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek and lighting designer Andrew F. Griffin, both Folger Theatre veterans, know how to use the stage’s nooks and crannies to create multiple settings and suggest a breadth and depth the stage lacks. Cisek’s beams evoke soaring columns before gradually leaning into the stage – lowered by visible ropes and pulleys – to bob like the masts of ships sailing to France. Then they collapse into what might be fallen trees or crumbling buildings on the battlefield, before finally rising up once more with England’s triumph.

In this make-believe set Zach Appelman casts a spell of his own as an unusually youthful Henry V. The king rallies his advisers and troops not with bravado and charisma, but rather determination and wit. It begins in Act I, when the French ambassador delivers tennis balls to Henry in response to his claims to France, with a message from the dauphin that tennis is better suited to Henry’s spirit than the conquest of French dukedoms. Few actors have delivered with such clarity and power Henry’s incisive smack-down that follows; Appelman relishes every withering line.

In his battle scenes, masterfully choreographed by fight director Casey Dean Kaleba, Appelman matches his verbal abilities with physical skill, deploying a black belt in karate in a series of startlingly realistic altercations. And as if that isn’t enough, he proves a more than worthy wooer at the play’s end, charming Princess Katherine of France (Katie deBuys) with a self-effacing semi-monologue that’s at once heart-warming and hilarious.

DeBuys is the perfect counterpoint to Appelman’s nervous energy, capturing the somewhat disingenuous reserve and a brave curiosity the princess can’t suppress. And Catherine Flye strikes a perfect note as Katherine’s attendant, Alice, who does her best to serve as interpreter for the king and princess with helpful statements like: “Oui, dat de tongues of de mans is be full of deceits: dat is de princess.”

Both actresses shine in other roles, too. In most of her scenes deBuys plays a character named only “Boy,” whose innocence, fear, and ultimate murder by French soldiers are grim reminders of the victims of war. Flye begins the play as Hostess Quickly, managing a boisterous band of rogues and then poignantly describing the death of Falstaff, the king’s rejected friend who has passed away in exile.

The rest of the cast does an admirable job, usually filling multiple roles. Folger favorites Louis Butelli and Michael John Casey, Chris Genebach and Edward Christian morph easily from staid bishops, dukes, and earls into war-weary soldiers and comical commoners. James Keegan is a particularly amusing and touching Pistol, the scam artist who genuinely gushes about his love for the king to Henry, not recognizing him in disguise. Keegan and Cameron Pow, playing the Welshman Fluellen, engage in colorful verbal jousts – until Fluellen avenges an insult by forcing Pistol to eat a dreaded leek in a scene that’s humorous, humiliating, and sad all at once.

Despite often inspired direction, staging, and acting, at times they don’t all quite gel, as if they have yet to achieve a synergy that makes each element all the stronger. It’s noticeable during Henry’s famous Saint Crispian’s speech, a gorgeous and nuanced rallying cry for his troops that builds to a crescendo. As Appelman gives the speech his all, the stony silence of the cast – sustained until they issue a single, robust cheer – denies him the give and take between leader and followers, actor and actors, that might more fully bring the text to life.

That kind of give and take among the small ensemble cast and with its audiences, who can’t help but participate within the Folger’s intimate space, will surely build in every performance. With so much to its credit this production promises to grow in power and resonance, as living theatre at its best always does.

Henry V” is playing at the Folger Theatre through March 3, 2013.

Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.