Monday, July 9, 2018

"King Henry V": Day 9, Play 9, Theatre Eddys at the 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Henry V
William Shakespeare

Daniel José Molina as King Henry V

“Therefore take heed how you impawn one person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war.
We charge you in the name of God, take heed;
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood.”

The King who looks squarely, calmly, and bluntly into the eyes of the Archbishop of Canterbury – a man willing to deposit huge amounts of Church money to persuade the King to battle hated France – this King is clearly not the same Prince Hal who once spent his nights in the dark alleys and bars of London with his rotund, rascally pal, Sir John Falstaff.  In this 2018 Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging of William Shakespeare’s King Henry V, the prince-now-king is once again played by Daniel José Molina as he did in the 2017 Henry IV, Parts One and Two, but now his Prince Hal’s entire persona, demeanor, and even countenance has solidified into a young King Henry V of steady mind and steely resolve. 

While Shakespeare’s preceding two plays detail the slow sunset of one king and the even slower, more unsure sunrise of his unruly son, his brilliantly written King Henry V leaves no doubt that here is a king still young in age but mature beyond what both his friends and foes expect.  We and they soon learn that this youthful-looking king brings much depth of insight about the costs of war, much courage to undertake great risks for a country he cherishes, and much wisdom to leave hot-blooded decisions of his youth long behind in order to make measured, just decisions that send important, long-reaching messages to his court, his armies, and his subjects.

Daniel José Molina as King Henry V with His Troops
However good Daniel José Molina was one year prior as Prince Hal (a role I describe in my review of Parts One and Two as “magnificent in a role that stretches the ranges of Hal’s maturity and manners to great widths”), he is even more stunningly superb as now Henry V.  Time and again, Shakespeare gives Henry some of the greatest lines ever written to describe the horrors of the battlefield and the resulting demise to families, words to provide courage and encouragement to soldiers even as they face enemy many times their numbers, and passages to ponder what it means to be a sovereign leader with the sleepless nights that come with such a responsibility.  Mr. Molina bravely takes on the titular role that the likes of Lawrence Olivier, Tom Hiddleston, and Kenneth Branagh have graced the silver screen; and the up-close interpretation we watch in the intimate OSF Thomas Theatre allows his Henry V to join that level of arresting performances. 

His is a king who is still very approachable, human, and down-to-earth, as is seen in a moving scene where he disguises himself and wanders around speaking and sparring in words with his soldiers.  But, as portrayed by Mr. Molina, this is also a newly crowned monarch who stands apart from all others in his quiet confidence in his own decisions, his calm and reassuring manner of making the toughest decisions, and his ability to inspire men on their way to almost a sure death.  With deep-set eyes that communicate a steadiness others willingly follow, this King is exactly who Shakespeare must have had in mind when he penned lines like the famous, pre-battle speech to his group of generals at Agincourt, forever known as the “Band of Brothers” speech:
“From this day to the end of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

The excellence of Daniel José Molina’s performance is made all the more so as he is surrounded by a cast of able actors who play multiple roles in quick-change fashion on the floor-level stage, only a few feet from an audience that surrounds on three sides.  Rex Young is the persistent, pressing Archbishop of Canterbury who advocates war with France for his own reasons quite apart what is really good for England.  He then switches to become a fair-reasoning, perceptible King of France (Charles VI) who seems to have intuition that this Henry is no longer Hal. 

Moses Villarama & Tyrone Wilson
Among other roles, Moses Villarama is the hot-headed, brash Dauphin, son of King Charles who so underestimates the young Henry, teasing him and making a huge mistake of sending a peace offering of tennis balls.  That latter act by the immature French Prince offers Shakespeare the chance to write a wonderful set of lines about the balls that Henry and the French emissary, Montjoy, get to volley back and forth, the herald played with fabulous French accent and demeanor by Jessica Ko.

Jessica Ko & Daniel José Molina
Jessica Ko is also the other child of Charles VI, Katherine, a princess who becomes part of the peace settlement between victorious England and a soundly defeated France.  The scene of Henry courting the French-speaking maiden in his English-only quest for her statement of love is one of the highlights of the entire production, with both actors showing signs of awkward, coy, shy, forward, and delightfully eager all within the same, short sequence.

Michele Mais & Kimberly Scott
Part of that scene’s fun comes from a closely watching Lady-in-Waiting of the Princess, a stern looking but happy hearted Alice, played by Michele Mais.  Ms. Mais also reprises her 2017, gloriously funny role as Hostess Quickly.  While she has fewer opportunities to show the bawdy humor of the past, it is her womanhood as a wife that reigns forth in this outing, especially in a scene where she says good-bye to her newly wed, off-to-battle husband (Ancient Pistol, played by Kimberly Scott) and his common-folk cohorts.  The farewell and tears by all is a touching reminder by Shakespeare of the thousands of such farewells – many final – that occur prior to every soldier embarking into a war, no matter what era or what set of sparring enemies.

The brutalities of battle symbolically and powerfully come to full life only a few feet from us as audience under the commanding direction of Rosa Joshi.  Scenes of hand-to-hand conflict, surprise confrontation, and deadly blows play out as a kind of bloody ballet as actors are one moment charging and dying as English; and in the next, the same as French.  While the time is clearly of another age, the timeless aspect of all battlefields is accentuated through the bone-rattling booms of modern cannons and artillery (Palmer Hefferan, Sound Designer) and the blasts of light from exploding, present-day grenades (Geoff Korf, Lighting) -- all on a fifteenth-century, French field where we know future wars of the twentieth-century will spill likened blood of the thousands who fight there. 

Director Joshi employs numerous devices to transform this rather small cast into hordes of fighting and dying soldiers.  With the lighting help of Geoff Korf where paired fighters are for an instance encased in a spotlighted box of horror, Director Joshi and Fight Director U. Jonathan Toppo guide the roaring battlers through many frames of seconds-long, paired conflicts; frozen moments of death; and sudden rushes and retreats of soldiers in full voice of screaming bold shouts of attack and agony cries of injury.  In one incredible sequence, one soldier becomes a thousand as attacks come at her over and again, with blood in the form of scores of long, red rags gushing forth.  Those same rags – part of Richard L. Hay’s simple but highly effective set design and properties – come to represent the fallen bodies of both armies whose dead look the same when left lying in a field where their supposed differences led to their deaths.

While so much works so well in this production of Henry V, there are a few, rather minor issues.  The continual and often abrupt switches of actors from one role, one gender, one nationality to the next is sometimes confusing to understand who now is speaking among the thirty-plus speaking roles along with the roles as Chorus that the dozen actors portray.  The first half of the play sometimes drags a bit in all the build-up toward the never-pausing in action second half.  This is especially true when scenes of the commoners occur -- the pun-filled patrons of the two parts of Henry IV as well as Merry Wives, Pistol, Nim, and Bardolph -- that do not work as well in this outing as in the previous plays.  That all said, these are only minor blemishes in an otherwise near-flawless production.

The 2018 OSF production of King Henry V is a close-up, intense look into the face of a young leader who must make decisions that will cost many lives for a cause that one cannot help but wonder how it can be deemed worthy of such a price.  The battle before us becomes Every War; and the individual combatants, Every Soldier.  William Shakespeare, Rosa Joshi, Daniel José Molina, and the rest of this cast and creative team combine efforts to remind us that however sure and inspirational the leader, the costs of decisions are never any more noble than the dying breath of those unnamed many who fall again and again and again.

And as the epilogue so telling reminds us, the victory and final peace of Henry V will soon be completely and horrifically undone in Henry VI.  And so goes the world to this day.

Rating: 4.5 E

Henry V continues through October 27, 2018 at at the Thomas Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Jenny Graham

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