Talented Gallery Players Infuse Shakespeare Staple with Drama and Humor
Action Talk, Interludes Divert, Young Harry Roars, Beats Odds in Murderous Battle
Far From Broadway, the Lively Soulfulness of Dedicated Young Hearts
Those willing to venture into Park Slope Brooklyn for Shakespeare will be well rewarded by the Gallery Players current summer hit, Henry V. Directed by the imaginative indie director Padraic Lillis of Irish heritage, it’s an energetic, resonant production of the full three hour script of Henry V, as opposed to the splendid but heavily cut version in the British Hollow Crown series to be rebroadcast on Channel 13 later this week.
Henry V is the sixth summer presentation of the great Bard by the Gallery Players in their sizable but still intimate theater (at 199 14th Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Park Slope) and will run from July 17 through August 3rd, reminding all who catch it how actors on a stage make words live and summon up the blood in ways that even master scriptwriter Shakespeare can not match on screen.
An impossible victory won
Henry V has no complex plot, the story line merely following the inevitable political and military steps leading up to the battle of Agincourt. But on that memorable day the newly minted king achieves an astonishing victory over the vastly superior forces of the French, and his triumph sharpens the point of all that has gone before. How does Henry come to his miracle? The secret lies somewhere in his complex character as ruthless but young royalty. The one time dissolute prince Hal has turned into a man of steely mind and spine, whose seemingly brash bravado is alloyed with cunning, courage and unflinching determination, and whose complex embodiment of those and other qualities fit for a king leads his men on to prevail over impossible odds.
This is the Machiavellian theme of this richly worded play from 1599, first staged nearly a century after the Italian wrote his notorious handbook for rulers, The Prince. What does it mean to be a king, and lead men to success? Much of the action is verbal and presents one side or another of this fundamental question, often both. Is mercy a virtue in a monarch, or is cruelty? How ruthless should he be in dealing with trusted aides who plot against him? Should he execute a soldier and friend of his lowlife youth who is caught thieving against his army’s rules? Is it not villainous to threaten the burghers of Harfleur with soldiers run amok to dash their graybeard heads against the wall, rape their daughters and spit their infants upon pikes unless they give in to his siege?
In the hands of director Padraic Lillis the almost uncut play yields a full discussion of the age old moral challenge of royal power, yielding a kaleidoscope of angles on the topic without coming down on one side or the other, as so many directors like to do, when Shakespeare says it all. The ambiguity magnifies the chorus’ call for the audience to lend the play its best imagination, and we are set to wrestle with the paradoxes Henry personifies, just as the headlines fill with newly murderous power struggles in Ukraine and Gaza.
Giving words their due
Well played by Peter Collier as a Henry short of stature but tall in commanding presence, the king is firmly established as one who has left behind his rumbustious drinking bouts with amusing lowlifes led by Falstaff, who symbolically dies offstage here without ever appearing before us. But Henry is a young king, who embodies the tension between the sociable youth he was and perhaps still wants to be, and the morally questionable acts he must undertake as the wielder and keeper of ultimate power.
As always in American productions this playgoer of British heritage listened for Shakespeare’s individual words to be given their poetic due and here this production showed its quality from the start. The long opening recap by the Archbishop of Canterbury on the lineage and the law that purportedly back Henry’s claim to the throne of France can be as tedious to an impatient audience as it is to Henry, who waits with yawns to know whether his claims can justify war. But Gregory L. Wilson unwinds his lengthy historical argument in measured but emphatic style as tellingly as any stretch of Shakespeare’s more poetic verse.
The less mature but highly charged Peter Collier at 26 is the same age as Henry in this moment of English history and plays the kingly role with increasing assurance, dispensing his lethal condemnation of the trio of traitors unmasked in the first act, thundering his answer to the Dauphin’s mocking gift of tennis balls, rallying his men urgently at Harfleur – “once more unto the breach dear friends! – and finally, climactically at Agincourt with the famous St Crispin’s Day speech – “gentlemen in England now a-bed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here!” – with flair and without bombast, a difficult trick given the anachronistic flavor of battle fervor in these contemporary times.
Padraic Lillis, who is founder and resident director of the Farm Theater and was voted NYIT Outstanding Director among three directing awards last year, assembled his cast of 24 from 190 auditions and all of them are vibrant with the youthful energy and dedication that imbues his production throughout. Lillis’ style is to let them have their heads, if they come up with the right direction to take, he said afterwards. Among his finds is tall curly haired and bearded Kevin Blackwelder in his fourth appearance in Shakespeare here (Lear, Othello, Merchant), who pulls off the mostly comic role of Fluellen with a rich and unforced drollery that entertains more and more as he reappears, sealing an accomplishment as one very memorable character. Also notable was the lively mischief of Princess Katherine (Laura Lassy) and her lady-in-waiting Alice (Bernadette Maass) in their language lesson, as always delicious vocal fun. All these set a standard for the rest which was not always met, with youthful zeal often overcoming sense with rush and stridency. As the Hollow Crown productions show, the unfair advantage of film is the close up, which allows the voice to relax and render its lines with full meaning more easily than from the stage, just as the recording mike freed Crosby, Sinatra and Billie Holiday to drawl their songs. As Shakespeare in the Park has often shown it can be hard to find actors on American stages who realize that the density of Shakespeare’s lines require poetic pacing and clarity that is kind to the audience’s ears, that seduces rather than declaims.
With 38 parts shared by the 15 men and nine women in the eternally young (since 1967) Shakespeare oriented company for this production (in a nice reversal of Elizabethan staging, five of the latter play male roles) all have individuality to match the roles they play on stage, varying much in shape and size and sound. Only the mild mannered king and court of France are uniformly tall, casting with which the director intentionally emphasized the overwhelming strength of the French court and army whose power and scorn Henry would flout with inspired fortitude, strategy, and help from God – not to mention their own foolish overconfidence.
But perhaps Lillis’ most striking coup as director is to invent a way of staging the unscripted battle scene which is startling in its evocation of the death dealing force and nightmarish cruelty that was the real experience of the great battle of Agincourt. The shouting combatants fill the red painted stage as black silhouettes who are suddenly frozen in place as a backdrop to the contrasting scene where Pistol extracts crowns from a kneeling, misguidedly terrified French soldier (ably played by Ewa Maria Wojcik, also Williams, and whose part in the group chorus was particularly well voiced).
Vile murder and carnage
For Agincourt was indeed a horrid massacre. There according to the play’s reckoning 10,000 French nobles and soldiers were killed by English longbow archers and men at arms. They were trapped in mud and heavy armor amid panicking wounded horses in between the wooded sides of a long depression, and their slaughter was matched by the loss of merely 25 English warriors noble and common (Shakespeare’s numbers are not so far off the true imbalance according to historians, who say it might well have been 8000 French dead to 125 English lost). If the cause be not just, as soldier Williams says, “the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads chopp’d off in a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place.”
And all of it was useless in the end, as Shakespeare has the chorus explain in a poignant Epilogue:
Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly liv’d
This star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the world’s best garden he achiev’d,
And of it left his son imperial lord,
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King
Of France and England, did this king succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed
Which oft our stage hath shown, and for their sake
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.
Conquering the balky Sunday subway system to arrive in the far reaches of Brooklyn to sit through three hours of dense poetic declamation indoors on a lovely summer afternoon may not sound like fun to some spoiled Manhattanites who imagine that their own borough is the axle of the theater world, but at this level of fresh and informed rendition of one of Shakespeare’s more stirring, provocative and relevant tales it was time well spent.
We’d say the personally modest but artistically distinguished Padraic Lillis has brought off another coup here in his demanding chosen profession of creating illusion with the most mercurial and independent minded raw material of all, other creative human beings, in this case almost all of them young in their career, passionate and ambitious to shine on stage with talent to spare.
Given the impressive fact, revealed in the bonus post performance discussion by the producer (Dominic Cuskern), director and lead compered by coordinating producer Sidney Fortner, that this nearly three hour long diversion was pulled off in just five weeks preparation and rehearsal by people with other jobs to go to every day, it has to be the talent and sheer intensity of those not yet fully embraced by commercial and award winning success which accounts for such an absorbing and stimulating achievement.
Like a jaunt from Paris to a four star restaurant deep in the French countryside to sup on fine French cuisine, this trip to a notable theater in Park Slope yielded an experience more lively and soulfully rewarding than many of the expensive Broadway musicals noticed by the Times. As the theater site announces, “The Players’ Shakespeare vision supports the idea …that telling the story — without undue embellishment or underscoring, relying first and foremost on the text and the skills of the artists involved –results in the kind of Shakespeare that fills souls. It supports the idea that anyone can understand and – more importantly – relate to this work.”
And so it did. – Anthony Liversidge
For complete data on the theater, the play and the players, and the company, where it is and how to buy tickets, please go to Jul 17 Thu-Aug 3 Sun Park Slope’s Gallery Players Present Henry V
At a Sunday matinee, a good audience filled the tiered seats in the sizable but still intimate theater where at intermission soft drinks and candy are sold at last Century prices ($1 for tea, soda $2, beer or wine $5, $2 for Kit Kat) by volunteers. But the performance was the great bargain at $18 a seat ($12 for seniors and children under 12) – engaging, spirited, provocative and full of the attention getting zeal of players at the height of their youthful ambition, ambition to match the king’s, and well directed.
For more low grade snapshots before and after the performance, please go to Jul 20 Sun Gallery Players Stage Henry V With Fire and Wit at Talk In New York Photocalendar.
Another great advantage is worth mentioning – not too far off are small restaurants such as Sekt with its solid wooden tables and benches and delicious pirogis and omelettes at a saving over Manhattan prices enough to pay for a cab home – though the subway is easier and almost as quick.
We liked this quote from “What is Players’ Shakespeare? – a notice at the theater: The Players’ Shakespeare vision supports the idea …that telling the story — without undue embellishment or underscoring, relying first and foremost on the text and the skills of the artists involved — results in the kind of Shakespeare that fills souls. It supports the idea that anyone can understand and – more importantly – relate to this work.
The central Players’ Shakespeare purpose: to explore the world of Shakespeare simply, clearly, cleanly, illuminating the basic human truths that remind us we are kin.
The audience included concert pianist and Larchmont artistic salon hostess Nina Kuzma-Sapiejewska, the Polish born mother of Ewa Maria Wojcik, who played the roles of the French soldier and member of the chorus, the Governor of Harfleur and member of the Chorus, and who held the box containing the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls. Nina Sapiejewska and her apartment were featured in the New York Times at Call Her Style Concert-Cozy accompanied by a video A Sense of History.
“It was absolutely fantastic!” Ms Sapiejewska told the panel. “Overwhelming, fascinating, dynamic -the energy was incredible. So much given to the audience. The spectator must walk outside for hours and absorb all this. People go to the theater for entertainment but this is so much more – people should come a few times!” Loud applause followed her remarks.
Also present was Tom Pedas, who taught Peter Collier in kindergarten.