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Henry V
We few,¬†we happy few, we band of brothers; .— Henry V .
zenzi williams
Zenzi Williams (photo: Joan Marcus)
. Shakespeare hounds who yearn to see Henry V with a new twist should head to the Public Theater's Shiva Theater. Though helmed unevenly by Robert O'Hara, this Mobile Unit production scores with Zenzi Williams in the nominal role.

The Mobile Unit was launched with Measure for Measure in 2010. Evolved from Joseph Papp's famous Mobile Shakespeare program, it presents plays for free to audiences in prisons, homeless shelters, and social service centers throughout the five boroughs. Following its traveling tour, it tucks in at the Public Theater's downtown home at Astor Place for the last leg of its theatrical journey.

Each production to date has been performed on a huge carpet with a minimum of props. The current production follows in that same Spartan vein, with the only props being a carpet and a throne

The laws of nature seem to be suspended with the casting of Williams as Henry V,and it raises a double-pronged question: Should we read Henry as a woman? Or man? Curiously, Williams doesn't try to persuade us one way or the other as to the gender of her Henry. Instead, she inhabits the part as if it were her second skin, and let's us puzzle out the gender issue for ourselves.

Williams has the lion's share of lines (in an uncut production, Henry claims a whopping 1028 lines) and truly delivers the theatrical goods. With a no-nonsense attitude, Williams bounds through the play from the opening scene with the tennis ball taunt . . .to the battle of Harfleur . . . straight on to the field of Agincourt. . . .to the Act 5 wooing scene.

There are a couple of other actors who come off with credit. Patrice Johnson, as the French herald Montjoy, creates a terrific chivalric tableau with her arrogant French attitude, best illustrated when she dramatically tosses her scarf over her shoulder before exiting the stage.

Another standout is Carolyn Kettig as Katharine. Though she first seemed miscast as the French princess, she gathered steam as the scenes unspooled, and by the Act 5 wooing scene, she had that je-ne-sais-quoi quality to draw all eyes to her.

Admittedly, Henry V is a difficult play to mount, and O'Hara falters when he attempts to bring his vision into focus. He never establishes a unified tone for the piece. Little wonder that many of the characters topple over into caricatures. Perhaps O'Hara needs to remember to trust more in Shakespeare's language and let the words themselves do their magic.

In a director's note, the Public's artistic director Oskar Eustis reflected on the challenges of interpreting Shakespeare's works: "No matter how much he may have had a conscious agenda, Shakespeare wrote characters with such complexity and humanity that his plays can be read in an infinite variety of ways." It's a good take-away for Henry V, or any other work in the canon.

Over the years I have seen a number of stage productions of Henry V but only two come immediately to mind: The first was the iteration at Central Park's Delacorte Theater in 2003 with Liev Shreiber; the second was the Royal Shakespeare Company's touring production as part of the King and Country Cycle at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2016 with Alex Hassell. Both presentations succeeded, largely because the actors didn't overplay their hand.

Returning to the here and now, O'Hara's new take on Henry V could benefit from a less comic tone and more natural acting. With the exception of Williams, and a few other performers in the cast, the acting becomes too zany for this uber patriotic play. Yet O'Hara and Williams together have opened the door wider for female actors, not only for stepping into the role of Henry V, but for tackling other major parts in Shakespeare's plays.

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Henry V by William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert O'Hara
Cast: Michael Bradley Cohen (Canterbury/Dauphin/Chorus), Leland Fowler (Scroop/William-Bates/Chorus), Patrice Johnson (Montjoy/Messengers/Chorus), Carolyn Kettig (Katharine/Cambridge/Chorus), Ariel Shafir (Westmoreland/Constable/Chorus), David Ryan Smith (Exeter/Governor/Chorus), Joe Tapper (French King/French Queen/Chorus)
Scenic and costume design: Clint Ramos
Original music: Elisheba Ittoop
Scenic and costume design: Clint Ramos
Fight Captain: Michael Bradley Cohen
Stage Manager:Fatimah Amill
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
from 4/23/18; opening 4/27; closing 5/13/18
Running Time:100 minutes with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan at 4/26/18 press performance

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