Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Happy Few Hours with Good King Harry

A Happy Few Hours with Good King Harry

By Tom Wachunas

One of the things Frank Motz achieved so successfully in the summer of 2007, when he directed an ambitious outdoor production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in downtown Canton, was to elicit from his performers an eminently clear grasp and accessible delivery of Shakespeare’s language. Motz has done it again with a 20-member cast in an abridged version “Henry V” at the Kathleen Howland Theatre.

Setting the medieval tone of the play, the walls of the black-box space are lined with bright heraldic artworks by students from six area high schools. Interspersed throughout the evening is live Elizabethan-style music, written and well performed by Kris and Jeff Kiko-Cozy, with charming vocals by Melissa Day. Otherwise, stage scenery is minimal but sufficient, and in these intimate quarters, some of the costuming and props read as a bit too bargain-basement. But plastic daggers and breastplates aside, this production is nonetheless an efficacious presenting of Shakespeare - the storyteller extraordinaire, the master craftsman of human interactions both deep and farcical - and the cast clearly respects and relishes the task at hand.

In addition to the chorus members that Shakespeare provided to comment on the action – played here with warm conviviality by Mary Lou Ianni, Janet Jones, and Kathy Lewis – director Motz has also written in periodic appearances for The Bard himself who, via the friendly and credible portrayal by Ross Rhodes, comments on the proceedings in more contemporary, though no less stately syntax.

Like most of the other cast members, Rhodes dons more than one hat in the production. To his role of Nym, one of three “low-life” soldiers who remember carousing with the King in his youth, Rhodes brings hilarious bluster. Similarly, his roguish companions - Bardolph, played by Joe Martuccio, and Pistol, played by Don Jones – are equally memorable and remarkably adept at gut-splitting bravado.

And there are several other relatively mirthful scenes that pepper this clash between England and France. In one, John Scavelli is delightfully animated as the fawning Bishop of Ely, fumbling through an unwieldy batch of documents to be examined by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In another, Helena Kiko-Cozy is priceless as the French Princess Katherine whose thick accent turns learning English into a riotously exasperating anatomy lesson, overseen by her patient and bemused attendant, played by Janet Jones. And E.J. Dubinsky, as a boy-soldier, is brilliant when he speaks to the audience, unleashing his scathing, blithe assessments of Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol.

Let’s remember, though, that the narrative thrust of this story is the bloody gravitas of war, even if it does end in the marriage of enemies. That thrust is centered in the convictions and decisions of Henry V. In this role, Jeff Jakmides presents a fascinating and generally very engaging mix of flawed and vulnerable humanity, burdened and august royalty, the fierce warrior at the gates of Agincourt, and victorious but nervous suitor. In his pivotal St. Crispin’s Day address to his outnumbered troops - some have called it the most iconic motivational speech ever written - Jakmides’ delivery on Saturday night seemed more like dignified diction than intense dramatic fireworks. Since I missed the opening night performance, I’m wondering if the moment might have been the victim of the proverbial second-night come-down (keeping in mind that Olivier and Branaugh set an incredibly lofty bar in their respective film versions). Still, Jackmides’ resonant demeanor was infused with authentic, endearing urgency.

Certainly as a whole, this production stands as a satisfying and distinguished retelling of a classic. As such, it’s an important – even courageous – reminder to continue savoring the astonishing grace, inspiring narrative power, and timeless poetry that is Shakespeare.

Photo courtesy Don Jones. William Shakespeare’s HENRY V, at the Kathleen Howland Theatre, located in Second April Galerie, 324 Cleveland Avenue N., downtown Canton. Shows February 25 and 26 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets $10.00 (330) 451- 0924.

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