As “scaffolds” go, that 2nd Stage of Pacific Resident Theatre is pretty darned “unworthy,” at least as far as pageantry fitness is concerned. And don’t these actors know it! They’re sitting on crappy mismatched chairs, lounging around a rehearsal room table in a functional black box listening to their leader (Alex Fernandez, AKA the Chorus) knowingly take us through one of the most famous openings in western literature. Fernandez practically rolls his eyes at the meanness of this wooden O as he reminds us that the job “decking kings” and recreating Agincourt is, in some measure, our responsibility.
The duties of imagination we can handle, particularly with a troupe like this to spur us on. They may be dressed in functional present day street clothes and have only a few props to employ, but the cast assembled by director/co-adapter Guillermo Cienfuegos are “players” in every sense of the word. Their production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is lean, mean, frill free and spellbinding. In the name of God, Henry and St. George, let them return soon to tackle “Lear,” “Julius Caesar.”
The professed unworthiness of assembled players - and play-ground – to recount the glorious tale of “Henry V” is, of course, a dodge. Costumes or rags, gorgeous scenery or bare stage, Cienfuegos and his troupe have all the tools they need. Indeed, before that very opening is halfway complete, the players have disassembled that table and chairs with a crash and are brandishing them over their heads. It’s wartime, ladies and gents, and away we sail.
Cienfuegos and co-adapter Joe McGovern have sprinkled in strategic bits of the “Henry IV” plays to remind us what brought the once profligate Prince Hal (played by McGovern) to the English throne with an eye toward invading and seizing France. So we get some disapproving remarks from Hal’s dying father (Fernandez) and key scenes between Hal and Sir John Falstaff (Dennis Madden), the dissolute father figure Hal embraces and ultimately rejects. Madden has a splendidly merry gruffness, and a barrel chest containing a heart full of love for this wild Prince. A bit of gravitas and a dollop of palsy turns him effectively into the King of France.
Nearly all of the players are taking on at least two roles. Or, like Norman Scott (Pistol and the lighting and sound designer), they have made a technical contribution to this endeavor. Elspeth A. Weingarten is the show’s producer as well as a very effective – and often very conflicted – messenger who shuttles between King Henry and the French royals.
Earlier this year, I was gobsmacked by the sheer magic the Bristol Old Vic/ Handspring Puppet Company’s production of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which had whimsy, masks and toys aplenty for maximum ooh and ahh-age. The Cienfuegos-directed “Henry V” is, in many ways, that “Dream’s” opposite: an expertly studied, clearly delivered rendition of a great story with no distractions but the poetry of Shakespeare’s language. The 2nd Stage holds barely 30 people and it’s not for nothing that this oft-extended “Henry V” is frequently packing its tiny house.
The cast-audience intimacy bring a “we’re bringing this story to a select few” vibe to the proceedings. The players aren’t interacting directly with individual audience members (except for monologs), but the production’s street theater flavor and certainly those costumes make it feel as though they these actors walked in off the street and are every bit from our ranks. Who can’t get with a 5 o-clock shadow-ed King who blows into France wearing cargo shorts (possible symbolism there? A King not yet out of his short pants?) and a sleeveless black t-shirt emblazoned with the word “Slayer.”
Given the strength of this ensemble, McGovern is not called upon to deliver a take no prisoners star turn in the title role. He works the language efficiently, punches up the Harflew and St Crispin’s Day speeches and has a non-threatening rapport wooing Carole Weyers’ Princess Katherine. It would be interesting to see whether the magnetism would translate to a different kind of production.
Regardless, these troops will follow him into battle on this bare but rich wooden O in Venice, and the audience is right there on the journey as well.
"Henry V" continues at 8 p.m. Thu.Sat., 3 p.m. Sun.; through June 8 at PRT 707 Venice Blvd., Venice. $25. (310) 822-8392, www.PacificResidentTheatre.com