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A CurtainUp Review
Into the Hazard [Henry5]

Nice customs curtsy to great kings.— King Henry V.
Into the Hazard
Nick Dillenburg
(Photo: Lisa Dozier)
George W. Bush recently said that meals at the White House and meeting with soldiers were the things he most missed since leaving office. It's difficult to resist the temptation to comment further on these two things being equally important in the former president's mind, but his interest in the men who fought his wars for him is just as instructive; for centuries, leaders have felt a common desire to speak with their followers, particularly the ones who must sacrifice their lives for them. The famous scene in Henry V where the young king disguises himself to take the measure of his soldiers the night before the climactic battle with the French, reflects this desire, and Into the Hazard [Henry 5]'s director Jessica Bauman clearly wants the echo of American militarism to resonate in her modern adaptation of Shakespeare's patriotic play. The question is whether the echo is as loud now as it might have been a few years ago.

Bauman is willing to take some risks, and at first they seem like bold strokes. One large-screen TV, rigged to be raised and lowered as needed over the small metallic playing space (simply but intelligently designed by Christopher Akerlind), plays live and taped video throughout the performance. Henry gives one of his speeches via this method, and several news anchors (on Fox, of course) deliver their monologues in similar ways. A booming sound system plays air-raid sirens and earth-shaking explosions. The actors wear casual blazers, combat fatigues, and wield guns (and oddly, toy foam swords). And each actor plays multiple characters—most four or more—which gives the production an unsettling feeling of uncertain identities and loyalties.

To her credit, Bauman doesn't forget about the text, and the actors are obviously committed to both her vision and Shakespeare's words. The line readings are logical and well-rendered and, in some cases, very high quality—particularly Erin Moon, whose Katharine is sympathetic and convincing in a performance that makes her much more threatened than charmed by Henry's attempts to woo her. Some of the accents are problematic (Scott Whitehurst's French has a tendency to morph into Jamaican, and Luis Moreno's Scottish often seems to be delivered via New Delhi), but these are minor complaints. For the most part the actors carry off their roles well.

In some ways the weakest performer is Nick Dillenburg, whose Henry seems curiously incoherent (though his Dauphin, a smart choice of doubling roles by the director, is much better). At times the king appears stern to a fault, hell-bent on proving the legitimacy of his rule, which is a reasonable interpretation. Even England's most ardent defender would have had a hard time defending Henry's invasion of France as an act of justified self-defense. But elsewhere, most notably during the scene where Henry reveals himself to the soldier who had challenged his disguised form the night before, he comes across as a giggling buffoon, more frat brother than stately ruler.

Perhaps it's not fair to ascribe this oddly split image of Henry entirely to Dillenburg's portrayal because director Bauman obviously intends to paint a much more complex and less flattering picture of Henry than is the norm. In her director's note, she says that the play grew out of her reaction to the aftermath of September 11, more specifically the parallels between late 14th century England and early 21st century America: "We are citizens of a country embroiled in two wars, led by a young man most of us are rooting for." However, although the comparison in terms of military involvement is apt, the connection between leaders doesn't work. Obama isn't remotely like Henry, after all; even his greatest political critics would have a hard time viewing him as anything other than intellectual, calm, and given far more to logic and reason than emotional overreach.

The comparison Bauman clearly intends is to another recent American leader, driven to prove himself to his father, architect of two wars, impetuous, headstrong, and convinced in his own right course of action. But the younger Bush is gone from the scene now, and so Bauman seems forced to conflate present and past administrations in the government of Henry. It is an uneasy match. The modern frame and use of technology ought to give the violence within the play a keener edge. Instead the effect is one of emotional distance, of separation from the lived experience of the characters (the overuse of multiple roles for each actor doesn't help), and very little is either uplifting or devastating in the way it should be.

In the end, the disappointment in this production may stem mostly from bad timing. Three years ago, the representation of Henry as a militaristic, driven and selfish leader given to unnecessary foreign adventures might well have spoken powerfully to its audience's contemporary discontent. That environment now seems firmly in the rear-view mirror, displaced by optimism about the current administration (or at least a weariness regarding the immediate past one) and concern over other matters closer to home. Thus the impact of Bauman's interpretation is substantially dulled. Into the Hazard [Henry 5] is by no means a bad production. But ultimately it's hard not to view it as a missed opportunity, and hard not to wish it had hit the stage in 2006 instead of 2009.

Into the Hazard [Henry 5]
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Directed and adapted by: Jessica Bauman
Cast: Nick Dillenburg (King Henry / Dauphin), David McCann (Exeter / Erpingham / Nym / French Soldier), Erin Moon (Boy / Katharine / Montjoy / Governor of Harfleur / Messenger), Luis Moreno (Fluellen / Mistress Quickly / Orleans / Burgundy / Cambridge / Bates / French Ambassador), Trevor Vaughn (Pistol / Constable / Ely / Westmoreland), Scott Whitehurst (Canterbury / Bardolph / Scroop / French King / Gower / Williams)
Video Performers: Kelly Aucoin, Christopher Burns, Denis Butkus, Kevin Kelly, Godfrey Simmons, Samantha Soule
Scenic and Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Costume Designer: Emily Pepper
Sound Designer / Composer: Jeremy J. Lee
Video Designer: Austin Switser
Running time: Two hours, fifteen minutes (includes one fifteen minute intermission)
Walkerspace, 46 Walker St., (212) 279-4200
From 5/30/09 to 6/20/09; opening 6/04/09
Sun. — Mon. @ 7 p.m., Thurs. — Sat. @ 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15
Reviewed by Dr. Gregory A. Wilson based on June 1st press performance
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