Henry V by Theatre Pro Rata

Gabriel Murphy, Meredith Larson, Becca Hart, Ricardo Beaird and Victoria Pyan in Henry V. Photo by Charles Gorrill.

Gabriel Murphy, Meredith Larson, Becca Hart, Ricardo Beaird and Victoria Pyan in Henry V. Photo by Charles Gorrill.

In telling the story of a young king seeking to assert himself through violent conquest of his rivals and enlisting his country to risk their lives fighting for his cause, Henry V (Theatre Pro Rata, performing at the Crane Theatre, through Nov 20) highlights the drastic ways in which our world has changed over a relatively short period. Just a couple hundred years ago, ideas of honor and nationalism dominated the collective psyche of the western world, and while those urges remain today, they are largely superseded with stronger ideas of freedom and equality. Those contemporary values are many times present in their nascent stages in the works of Shakespeare, as he regularly took strides to tell history through the eyes of both nobility and lower classes. This is true here as well, as Henry V tells dual stories of royal undertakings and of the soldiers who at times struggle with their battle orders.

In a clever twist, Theater Pro Rata’s mounting maintains a meta feel throughout, establishing we are watching a troupe of actors gleefully relating history and playing off this conceit by engaging only six performers to portray more than 40 characters. Perhaps the most daring move is to rotate which performer plays Henry, with each providing differing shades of him as he strives to build his legacy. Luckily, it’s a gamble that largely works, due to the talented actors, sure direction, and an inventive staging that injects the Bard’s work with life on a sparse stage in a scruffy warehouse space.

This meta approach also allows director Matt Sciple to inject commentary into the proceedings, with thespians and audience alike reminded of war’s gruesome toll through jarring interjections of dissonant sound and light (sound and music by Derek Trost, lighting design by Julia Carlis). As Shakespeare paid homage to Henry V’s conquerors, these elements provide much needed gravity and perspective.

In addition to working on a conceptual level, the production also uses its improvised space supremely well, with energetic movement and fluid fight choreography (by Aaron Preusse). It is clear there was careful thought put into where viewers’ eyes would be directed and how to best maintain engagement, resulting in seamless transitions. Bravo to an all-around successfully crafted experience.

Above all, however, we must call attention to the excellent performances, because mounting this show with so few actors is no easy feat. Each of the actors is laudable—a confident and assured Gabriel Murphy excels with varied accents, Meredith Larson aptly captures the resentment of the lower class, Ricardo Beaird’s comic timing underlines pathos, and Victoria Pyan earnestly rouses the troops “into the breech.” And pulling double-duty, music director Derek Trost not only performs all the sound effects but delivers a handful of lines with endearing incredulity. Most remarkable is Becca Hart, a performer who nails every character she plays, differentiating them through impressively varied movement and expression.

For those who are wary of Shakespeare’s history plays, this production will serve as a great introduction. It is not so serious to be unapproachable, while not neglecting the weightiness its historical subject matter. While Henry’s imperialistic motivations are uncomfortable now, it is for this very reason Henry V serves as a worthwhile lesson. In a trying political season, Theater Pro Rata has offered a prime opportunity to look to the past and take solace in remembering that at least some things could be worse.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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