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The Chorus’ famous apology—-“this unworthy scaffold,” he calls the stage in his opening speech—-provides the organizing principle of Robert Richmond‘s lean, consciously theatrical staging of Henry V at the Folger Theatre. That, and a sober sense of the price of power; Zach Appelman‘s charismatic young Henry grows up and sobers up convincingly before the audience’s eyes in this production, perhaps more tellingly than I’ve ever seen.
Not coincidentally, the scaffold is a literal one—-a pair of them, actually—-on Tony Cisek‘s rough, rustic woodshed of a set, and a brace of hangings will take place before St. Crispin’s Day is done. One execution is an illustration of the hard choices a ruler must make, the other a comment (I think) on who tells the stories of history’s winners and losers. Between and behind those fatal platforms stands a forest of rough-hewn beams, hinged at the bottom and rigged to heavy ropes, that the actors raise and lower to suggest everything from vaulted throne rooms to a cramped ship’s hold. (The emphasis, again, is on showing the tricks that make for theatrical illusion.)
That insistence on firing the audience’s imagination is nicely of a piece with what Henry—-a stripling king with everything to prove and everything to lose—-does in those twin battlefield exhortations that V fans everywhere begin reflexively to quote when the play comes to mind. What are “Once more unto the breach” and “… upon St. Crispin’s Day,” after all, if not deeply theatrical projections designed to paint mental pictures of valor’s worth and posterity’s regard?
With an exception or two—-Edward Christian’s King of France seems trapped and stiff in the ornate robes and ruff Mariah Hale has entombed him in, and I could have done with a degree less disdainful bravado from Andrew Schwartz‘s callow Dauphin—-Richmond’s slender ensemble comes together nicely. (A mere 13 actors trade off the play’s 48 roles.) There’s particularly charming work from Catherine Flye as Mistress Quickly and a French lady in waiting, and as the latter she has a fine scene partner in Katie deBuys, playing that inquisitive princess. Pomme Koch is drolly charismatic as the Constable of France and movingly broken as Lord Scroop, one of the English conspirators who would betray Henry for a bag of francs.
As for Appelman, the guy at the center of it all, he proves his mettle early on, when a French ambassador delivers the Dauphin’s mocking “gift” to the king. Appelman summons all the poise and gravitas you could ask for in a monarch; he’s one of those actors who understands bone-deep the deadly authority of energized onstage stillness, and he deploys it to tremendous effect here, in one of Henry’s defining scenes. In his debut at the Folger, this is one young actor who’s demonstrating he’s worthy of the place’s heritage.
The play runs to March 10 at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre. $30-$68.