Saturday, November 7, 2009

King Henry V holds court in Folsom

l to r: Dominique Jones, George Sanford, John Riley Saunders

Courtesy photo

Not one to be daunted by challenges, producer and director David Harris takes on the awesome task of staging one of Shakespeare’s most popular histories, Henry V. Artistic director for the Falcon’s Eye Theatre at Folsom Lake College, Harris is well qualified to manage this challenging project.

Henry V is arguably England’s most idealized king. To most Americans he’s just another Henry, but to the English he’s a fusion of the elements making up the English character, a blend of nobility and commonness. A wastrel in youth, he achieved glory in later life with a conquest over the French at Agincourt in 1415. Shakespeare somehow manages to embody this blend in his play.

An anecdote, possibly apocryphal, is illustrative. It tells us about a production in England during WWII, with Laurence Olivier in the title role. A pacifist, Olivier had little stomach for the title role. “You are England!” Winston Churchill, rising out of his seat in the audience, bellowed at Olivier, who immediately changed his interpretation.

Though many of the parts in Harris’ production are played by Harris’ students, the roles have been cast through open audition. In addition, some heavy duty professionals, like Jonathan Williams from Sacramento’s Capital Stage, bring added strength to the show.

The story line begins when the King of France (John Reilly Saunders) mocks Henry (George Sanford) with a gift of tennis balls. After some elaborate legal advice, Henry raises an army and sets off to conquer France. Before leaving he establishes his seriousness by punishing several courtiers who plotted against him.

Shakespeare also recognizes the common folk who participate in the venture. They often provide comic relief, as with Pistol (Stephen Miller), Bardolph (Nick Heacock), Nym (Tim Yancey) and Mistress Quickly (Molly Miller). Most of the actors assume multiple roles.

The show gets off to a somewhat rocky start when Harris falls into a common trap that snares many directors struggling to do something original with Shakespeare. Traditionally the action begins with Shakespeare’s prologue (“O for a muse of fire…”) delivered by a lone actor, called the “Chorus,” as if he were the bard himself. When he says, “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / printing their proud hoofs i’ th’ receiving earth,” how can we resist visualizing the image?

Harris, however, breaks up the prologue, having each cast member dash on, then off, the stage after delivering one line. The result, to borrow a quip from Gertrude Stein, is that “there’s no there there.” When each line introduces a new actor, the underlying voice, the persona, disappears.

Adding to a somewhat rocky start, a rather nervous cast on opening night seemed to try tickling the audience by playing some scenes for unintended laughs. There are plenty of laughs in the play, but not all the scenes are supposed to be funny. Luckily, the actors seemed to enjoy an enthusiastic cheering section in the audience.

After intermission the cast appeared to restore its self-confidence and we got some brilliant moments. One highlight is a delightful scene when the French Princess Katherine (Dominique Jones) is tutored in English by Alice (Katherine Folsom), her attendant. The princess eloquently mispronounces the words as she touches various parts of her body. We also get more delightful comedy with the addition of the Welsh blowhard Captain Fluellen (Saunders).

But the action is dominated by a brave and principled King Henry, sparing his captives when he conquers the city of Harfleur and rivaling the eloquence of the chorus with his pep talk to his troops before the famous victory at Agincourt. “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more,” he begins, and ends with “Cry ‘Harry, England, and Saint George!’” There is also a sweet wooing scene between Henry, the novice lover, and the skeptical Katherine.

There is plenty of sword play, choreographed by Williams, who also acts as technical director and lighting designer. Some original music and sound design come from Clyde Patterson, and costumes are by Rebecca Redmond. Scenic director Stephen C. Jones augments the show with large background scenes suggesting locale and projected on side panels,

By the time of this writing, the cast should have shaken off the nervousness they experienced at the opening. And audiences in Folsom should be thoroughly enjoying Shakespeare’s magic.

“Henry V” continues through November 22 at Oak Hills Church, 1100 Blue Ravine Road, Folsom. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., with one Thursday night performance on November 19 at 8 p.m. There will be no performance November 14.

Tickets are $15 general; $10 for students, seniors, SARTA and LOST members, $7.50 for Los Rios employees and Oak Hills church members and staff. There is no advanced sale of tickets. Tickets may be purchased only at the door of the theatre an hour before the start of the performance, in cash or by check only. You may guarantee a seat by calling the box office at (916) 608-6800 and making a reservation.

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