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Twice during Shakespeare‘s writing career, from 1592 to 1593 and again in 1603, London experienced plague outbreaks. Despite the primitive state of understanding of contagions, public venues were shuttered on government orders. Theater ceased. Despite these precautions, the two outbreaks killed roughly a quarter of the city’s population.
Though health experts of our era are not expecting a crisis of these proportions, this may be my last theater review for months. On Friday, March 13, three plays I was slated to review were either canceled or postponed until further notice. As you read this, several more likely have been. At first, it was expected that theaters would close temporarily, likely until the end of March, but with every new recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every revised directive issued by the District government and surrounding state and county governments, and decisions made of their own volition by independent venues too small to be covered by declarations of emergency, it seems that the COVID-19 pandemic may leave local stages unlit and untrod upon for months.
The following evening, Saturday, March 14, Brave Spirits Theatre held the press opening of Henry V (the company’s name is drawn from a line in the play). It was also the company’s final performance before they, too, went on hiatus due to COVID-19. Henry V‘s popularity is such that in the short time since I began writing for Washington City Paper, this is the second production I have reviewed. What’s unusual is that Brave Spirits is not staging it in isolation but as the fourth part of Artistic Director Charlene V. Smith‘s ambitious project to stage Shakespeare’s entire eight-play history cycle in repertory over two years. Those who had attended previous installments have had a chance to see it as a continuous story, watch how themes and recurring characters develop, or observe ironies as members of the ensemble reappear in new roles, as when John Stange and Gary DuBreuil parody the rivalry they portrayed as Henry Bolingbroke and Richard II in their new roles as Eastcheap rogues Pistol and Nym.
In a recent profile in the Washington Post, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new artistic director, Simon Godwin, was presented, in a paraphrase, rhetorically asking why no company was doing this. Once the writer, Peter Marks, was chastised on Twitter, he adjusted the piece, but only by dismissing Brave Spirits, insinuating that their endeavor was not noteworthy because they were “small troupe” merely “attempting” the cycle. As bold as it was to make his debut as a local artistic leader with Timon of Athens, Godwin has just been handed the reins of a 35-year-old company whose 2016 annual report reported over $74,000,000 in total assets, while Smith and her collaborators co-founded Brave Spirits in 2011 and, according to the company’s 2018 990 form, have total assets of less than $32,000. Yet it was the smaller company that was doing what larger companies have not attempted.
What both Godwin and Marks miss is that with their comparably minuscule resources Brave Spirits is doing something that can never be accomplished in STC’s well-apportioned but now shuttered stages: intimacy. The space at Convergence, the Fairfax church where Brave Spirits performs, is just large enough to stage the formal pomp of the English and French courts and the tactics of their armies facing off on the Fields of Agincourt, but small enough, especially if one is seated in the front row, to feel embedded in the action and experience the clash of swords from just a few feet away (fight director Casey Kaleba does fine work and varied work throughout the evening).
Henry V has at times served propagandistic purposes, with Henry as a patriotic hero—in a show of national unity after 9/11, Hal was often presented as an analogue for George W. Bush, while his army of English, Scots, Irish, and Welsh soldiers has stood in for many multi-national alliances or multi-ethnic societies. Brendan Edward Kennedy plays him as a more ambiguous figure who keeps his true self largely hidden. His only clear motive is adding the French crown to his own, and he strategically assumes different personae, playing the resolute leader, the man-of-the-people, the divinely ordained monarch, and the ruthless warrior king.
There are other memorable performances among the 15-member ensemble playing more than 40 characters: Brianna Goode is delightfully deadpan as Peto, the Eastcheap brigands’ boy and interpreter who comes to a tragically senseless end, and Ian Blackwell Rogers is terrifically verbose as both the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose manufacture of the causus belli sets the plot in motion, and as the pedantic Welsh captain and military historian Fluellen.
Even in otherwise successful productions, the play’s denouement often flummoxes directors. I have never seen Henry’s wooing of Princess Katherine after so many of her cousins and countrymen have been routed done effectively on a large stage. Smith not only uses the intimacy of the smaller venue to her advantage, but she reimagines the scene as a feminist critique of Henry’s entire enterprise as Katherine’s understanding that she is to be war booty reveal the cracks in Henry’s self-presentation.
The box office reported that the audience numbered 34, in line with other opening nights of the run, but there were also 12 cancelations, perhaps in response to the pandemic. Because planning for the history repertory began in 2016, Smith says fundraising was sufficient and Brave Spirits “will be honoring all our commitments to pay our artists this season, despite cancellations” for the first year of their repertory. They will also be in a position to bring these four plays back when the full eight play cycle is performed in repertory in the summer of 2021, when we hope that this pandemic has passed.
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