ReviewStage

A Knockout Epic: Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Henry V” Delivers

Lina Benich ’16 / Emertainment Monthly Editor

The cast of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Henry V." Photo: Liz Lauren.
The cast of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry V. Photo: Liz Lauren.

Many classic plays have the power to bring an audience to its knees. Cyrano de Bergerac can pull audiences’ heartstrings like no other, and plays like The Importance of Being Earnest can have them rolling in the aisles at the lightest pun. William Shakespeare’s Henry V is another such play: a piece of grand scale and emotional depth that can stun an audience like a gunshot if done well. The key in that sentence is “if done well”. There are certainly many productions that fail to stir this kind of response in its audience. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Henry V, however, hits the target.

This enormous undertaking of a production tells the story of one of England’s kings, King Henry V. The play begins with the Dauphin (or Heir Apparent) of France snubbing the king, setting into motion a series of events that will end in France’s defeat. Many obstacles stand in Henry’s way before he can reach this goal, however, as traitors and meager numbers stack the odds against him. In this way, the play revolves (predictably) around Henry and the choices he must make as he continues his claim to France.

Harry Judge in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Henry V." Photo: Liz Lauren.
Harry Judge in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry V. Photo: Liz Lauren.

Because of his essential and iconic nature, the role of Henry is a difficult one to fill, and, under the direction of Christopher Luscombe, Harry Judge thrives as the title character in this grand epic. In the first moment he is onstage, he is decidedly not what the audience had in mind, and they may judge him for that, but in the second moment and until the end of the play, he proves he is exactly the actor for the job. The internal struggle Henry faces as he debates his backing from God and the implications of his actions plays out for the audience to see, it is so clearly on his face. He shows the sides of Henry that actors can sometimes forget as they get caught up in the mythical leader: that of the kindly and personable Henry, and the one with a sense of humor.

Despite the scholarly classification that this is not one of Shakespeare’s comedies, this production of Henry V is funny. In fact, it is very, very funny. Characters like Captain Fluellen (James Newcomb), Ensign Pistol (Greg Vinkler), and the Dauphin (Samuel Taylor) shone in this production as amusing reminders of levity in times of war. These actors, along with nearly every other actor in the production doubled roles, so while he wasn’t eliciting laughs as the mischevious Pistol, Vinkler was the grand King Charles VI of France, showing the range of each actor’s capabilities. In her role as the Princess Katherine, Laura Rook gave the princess humor and style, power and wit, and certainly everyone in the audience was as smitten with her as Henry by the end of the play.

Harry Judge in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of "Henry V." Photo: Liz Lauren.
Harry Judge in the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Henry V. Photo: Liz Lauren.

Another character in itself was the set. The scenic design for Henry VI, designed by Kevin Depinet, equaled the play’s grand scale. The rotating wall structure was perfect for the show, and stunned the audience when it transformed as war drew nigh. The way in which the set transformed to accommodate the multitude of locations in this play was fantastic, and showed its versatility with every turn. The sound design and original music, created by Lindsay Jones, equally portrayed the many moods of the production, creating beauty in scenes of prayer and war alike. The sound never seemed to fully end, but ebbed and flowed as the moment needed it.

Plays on a grand scale are a difficult task to undertake, near impossible to do well, but that is exactly what Chicago Shakespeare seems to have done. They have pulled together the finest actors and epic designs, and created an atmosphere that showcases one of Shakespeare’s greatest works and brings an audience to their knees.

Henry V is playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier through June 15th. Tickets at http://www.chicagoshakes.com.

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