Shakespeare’s Henry V is a coming-of-age story – Henry, once known as Hal, the young regular of taverns and Falstaff, finally comes into manhood and kingship. But Henry V is also an overtly theatrical story about war, about both a battle (the Battle of Agincourt, near the end of England’s Hundred Years War with France) and battle itself. Mark Mineart directs a clarion, beautifully restrained, affecting production, at the Theater at Monmouth.
Henry V is a play less of action than of character, texture, and explicit story-making, and the elegant minimalism, concentrated jewel-tone colors, and physical understatement of Monmouth’s staging, which loves stillness and nuance, are powerful choices for what often feels as much lyric as epic. Before a simple, rough scrim and wood frame, often backlit in red or white, Theatrical illusions are openly acknowledged by our Chorus, the striking Janis Stevens. She narrates with scintillating tenderness – at once teller and conjurer.
As the man at the story’s center, a man on the cusp, Jake Loewenthal is exceptional. His Henry’s liminal state between scampish youth and resolute manhood is arrestingly drawn and utterly convincing; we can actually watch him processing Henry’s changes. With boyishly handsome features, his face moves seamlessly from devilishness to sober resolution to a sort of startled self-awareness of his own evolution. Watch his reaction to the taunting gift of tennis balls, how first his lips curl in impish smile, but soon his jaw is set in focused vehemence. Much later, watch him learn that the English have triumphed, when that set of his jaw finally loosens and quivers and, eyes wet, he finally registers the full impact of what it has taken to do battle.
We also understand battle through secondary characters, many of whom have squabbles with those on their own side. In this excellent ensemble, even the most glancing characters are vivid, fraught with poetic force, and sometimes very funny. As the Welsh captain Fluellen, who picks fights with the Irish captain MacMorris (Lucas Calzada), Chris Holt is marvelous, prickly and indignant; a clownish threesome lends comic relief as whimpering Bardolph (Mark Cartier) tries to resolve personal grievances between Pistol (Bill Van Horn) and Nym (James Hoban) – all once followers of Falstaff – so that they might fight as one. The French have their own in-fighting: One priceless scene shows the cool, laconic derision of Constable (Calzada) and Orleans (Rob Glauz) for the Dauphin (the fine Tim Kopacz, fastidiously, elegantly arrogant in blue), who unlike them will not see battle. And a fine ambivalence comes as the steely delivery of the French herald Montjoy softens infinitesimally with respect for Henry.
Throughout are scenes and glints of quiet theatrical luxury – Henry in crimson with gold lions; subdued but potent leather, mail, and armor. Light is especially beautiful; watch white explosions upstage as grey-bathed soldiers mid-stage kneel, breathing audibly, then rise one by one to Henry’s courage. Watch a quietly wrenching scene of low firelight and tall shadows when Henry, in disguise, listens to three soldiers who fight his war yet have no say in it.
Those foot soldiers are portrayed as sympathetically and with as much nuance as Henry, in the next scene, as he agonizes over what it means to hold power over them. Such subtlety is at the core of this arresting production, which looks with compassion upon many men’s struggle to find civility, humility, and humanity in battle. Monmouth’s production offers a breathtakingly poignant meditation on both those who must lead wars, and those who must fight them.
Henry V, by William Shakespeare | Directed by Mark Mineart | Produced by the Theater at Monmouth | In repertory, through Aug. 20 | Visit www.theateratmonmouth.org.