This one-man version succeeds in staging Shakespeare's enormous play with clarity
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., July 17, 2009
The Off Center, through July 25
Running time: 1 hr, 20 min
Good plays can come in expensive, elaborate packages with flashy lights and tour buses. They can also come equipped with far less and still leave the audience feeling privileged to have attended.
Robert Faires' one-man performance in a pared-down Henry V is an exquisitely simple and thoughtful evening of theatre, one that will send audiences away feeling smarter than when they came in.
Already, the skeptics will have two complaints. One is that Faires is the editor of this Arts section, so of course I'm going to say his work is brilliant. There's no way to respond to that except to ask if anyone who has already seen Henry V shares the same doubts.
(Besides, Faires is the kind of guy who I could probably say in print has stinky boogers coming out of his face, and provided it had some basis in fact, he'd cheerfully allow it.)
The other qualm is from those who understandably say: "Henry V? A one-man show? Are you sure you want to do that?" It's true – the play is challenging to stage even when you have lots of actors. There are battle scenes, council chamber meetings, and a story that spans the English Channel. Shakespeare was aware of how ambitious the story was, and at the beginning of his script, he even begs the audience's indulgence as he and his actors build monumental scenery with the bareness of what they had at their disposal.
What Faires and his creative team have done is distill the script down to the essentials, and in keeping it simple, they have succeeded in staging an enormous play with clarity. For example, in portraying several characters of widely varying ages, classes, and origins, it might have seemed tempting to keep a rack full of costume changes on hand as Faires switches from one persona to the next. Instead, the slightest cock of his glasses or adding a slouch is all that's needed to show a new character. The audience on opening night chuckled at each transformation, laughing from that fun hit you get when someone engages your imagination.
Faires and director Catherine Weidner also find creative use for their very few props. It spoils the fun to say too much in advance, but it gives a spark of enjoyment to see a flashlight or a sweater vest turn into something completely different before your eyes. Lighting designer Jason Amato also deserves mention for, again, keeping it simple. The lighting changes say just enough to encourage the audience to imagine for themselves the details of a new morning or the aftermath of a battle.
What emerges from the sparseness of this production is the story of a man learning how to be king. Shakespeare lovers will recall that the Henry of this play spent all of Henry IV, Parts I and II cavorting with scoundrels and drunks. What Shakespeare and Faires give us in this play is a man growing up and deciding for himself the meaning of mercy as he leads an army into war. His ordinary humanity is reassuring as we watch him confront the ugliness and challenges of leadership with what little he has at hand.