Somewhere in the middle of it all, Henry V walked into the front row, shook my hand and asked me if I was ready for battle. I smiled and nodded. It was a gesture that was as empty as a box of tennis balls. Because it wasn’t really Henry V who wasn’t really asking me to go into battle. But it was one hell of an experience being asked to go into battle like that. It may not have amounted to much in and of itself, but it was precisely the type of clever connection that Bard & Bourbon manages with some of its sharper moments in its latest offering.
A King In Woods
The man who was actually shaking my hand and looking deeply into my eyes with a steely charisma was Zach Thomas Woods...an explosively energetic, young actor playing the role of a man who launched England to war with France and led them to victory in the Battle of Agincourt. Woods lives up to the power of the legend of a Shakespearian hero. He trembles with strength in accepting the crown. He carries a high-gravity approachability when delivering the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in launching troops into battle.
The deeper stuff, more conflicted stuff, though, is always a bit more tricky with Shakespeare. The script doesn’t allow for the right kind of distance to truly explore the travesty of inequality between nobles and commoners that echoes into today with the ever-growing divide between wealth and poverty. Shakespeare’s address of the greater complexities in the horrors of war and such never have a chance to come into full resolution in a production that is otherwise a great deal of fun. Woods does a noble job of delivering conflict as Henry struggles with internal uncertainties in leading the troops into France, but it is a noble job. It’s very difficult to deliver on the deeper problems of war in a script that also celebrates the legend of one nation’s victory over another.
Rather than grapple with the deeper problems at the heart of the script, director Grace DeWolff directs the focus of the play on interpersonal dramas one scene at a time. The British are in red. The French are in blue. There’s a cultural divide. Nationality is acknowledged...as is the divide the distances noble blood from commoners, but DeWolff cannily shrugs off bigger concerns for the drama of those present onstage. It serves the production well. On an intimate stage, all we have in the space are the individuals who have loves and fears and hatreds and so on.
A Rather Nicely Doubled Duecker
In a play of individuals, Susie Duecker plays a couple of different characters who find themselves in the unenviable position of being drawn against the king...initially in the role of the French Herald Montjoy who delivers the tennis balls to Hernry and then later-on as Michael Williams, who unwittingly picks a fight with the Henry prior to the big Battle of Agincourt. Duecker is smartly poised from a couple of different angles playing a couple of different people who are in way over their heads. It’s a memorable pairing for Duecker. (She also plays Bedford and the French King, but I really like the Moujoy/Williams pairing. It’s fun.)
Laude Ad Vance*
It helps that DeWolff is working with a great cast. LeAnn Vance manages some sophisticated moments with a few different characters, but she’s positively magnetic as the Chorus. It’s difficult to pinpoint what makes her work in the show’s narration work as well as it does. Her voice never reaches for any overwhelming sense of authority. Nor does it reach for a cloyingly ingratiating friendliness. Vance is just...really cool. She sets the scene with beautifully pragmatic tones. (So cool.)
LaBelle Belle En Français
The specifics of culture exist around the edges of the production, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t openly embrace the French En Français. Jeremy James LaBelle and Ashey Retzlaff are strikingly delightful as Alice and Catherine. The English tutorial scene is great fun. Retzlaff’s charming French is matched by LaBelle’s subtly witty sense of authority with the language. When Woods gets tossed into the mix attempting to woo Catherine the fun manages a gallantly tenuous charm about it.
And Always...There Is Drinking
The play plays out in a cozy subterranean space with a bottle bar. Nothing on tap, but the Under Ground Collaborative’s Matt Kemple keeps some rather nice beer behind the bar including a classy microbrew or two. This allows the audience to drink along with Shakespeare in style. This is Bard & Bourbon. Every performance features a different actor knocking back several shots of liquor before, during (and possible after) the performance. Opening night it was Christopher Braunschweig...a large and towering man who plays...like...five different supporting roles over the course of the play. With a casually engaging fire behind his eyes, Braunschweig has an innate appeal that’s at least 10/12 as tall as he is. He knocked back...a lot of liquor last night...over the course of the evening that comic mumbling under his breath became ever more pronounced. Thankfully, Braunschwieg seems totally incapable of being annoying about that sort of thing onstage.
Bard & Bourbon’s Henry V (drunk) runs through Feb. 17 at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard and Bourbon online.
*(probably not quite Latin, but I like it.)