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Henry V

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 27, 2018

Zenzi Williams
Photo by Joan Marcus

Think of the Public Mobile Unit production of William Shakespeare's Henry V, opening tonight at the Public's intimate Shiva Theater, as a mini-excursion to the summertime Shakespeare in the Park festival in Central Park, only indoors. It's free. It's fun. And, yes, it is also truncated, running 100 minutes without an intermission. But it is also acted with great energy and professionalism by a multiethnic group of talented young performers under the quirky but mostly effective direction of Robert O'Hara, best known for his own offbeat plays, among them Bootycandy and Barbecue.

More importantly, the production embodies the spirit of the Public's founder Joe Papp, who believed that theater and culture belong to everyone. Thus, the staging at the Public's East Village home follows on the heels of a three-week tour that took the company to prisons, homeless shelters, libraries, community centers, and other venues across all five boroughs of New York City. At the performance I attended, the audience was filled with young people, lots of them teenagers, who paid rapt attention to the goings-on just inches from where they were sitting.

Henry V is one of the more popular of Shakespeare's history plays. It is all about how a monarch-by-default learns to become a true king by throwing off his profligate past and accepting his responsibilities as leader of his people. It might have been helpful for the audience to have been provided with some of the king's backstory from the pair of Henry IV plays, in which he appears as the wild Prince Hal, hanging around with ne'er-do-well companions like Falstaff. But there is plenty here to get the message across, even with the cuts that have been made.

The focus is on the rivalry between France and England during the Hundred Years' War. The simple set design by Clint Ramos consists of a throne-on-wheels and a rug that is divided into two color designs: blue for France and red for England. Ramos also did the costumes, mostly black, but with appropriate blue and red accents. The French king (Joe Tapper), who thinks Henry will be a pushover, insults and goads the English monarch (an outstanding Zenzi Williams) into battle. Ms. Williams does beautifully with her delivery of Shakespeare's great war orations: "Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George" and the "St. Crispin's Day" speech. She also does nicely with Henry's pre-battle visits in disguise among the troops, and the king's personal dark night of the soul prior to daybreak and battle.

But it's not all war stuff. The most crowd-pleasing depiction is that of Katherine (Carolyn Kettig), the French king's daughter who is to wed the English monarch in a political arrangement that is expected to strengthen both their houses after the Battle of Agincourt has ended. Ms. Kettig is very funny in the scenes in which she is trying to learn English. It helps if you understand at least a little French, but her body language and her skewed pronunciations had the audience laughing out loud. More disconcerting is a later scene between Katherine and Henry, which is generally presented as a romantic wooing, but which is handled here more like a #MeToo moment. It makes sense when you think of Katherine as part of the "spoils of war," but it does startle in the threatening tone it conveys about a frightened young woman who is being treated like a diplomatic prize package. Certainly it is worth discussing afterward, along with the rest of this fine production. Newcomers to the play, or to Shakespeare for that matter, ought to prepare a bit ahead of time, but even those familiar with both will find much to enjoy.

Mobile Unit: Henry V
Through May 13
Shiva Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: