by Jeff Grygny
kynge went forth to Normandy,
With grace and myght of chyvalry;
Ther God for hym wrought mervlusly,
Wherfore Englonde may calle and cry,
Deo gratias anglia, redde pro victoria.
The Agincourt Carol (15th Century)
“O, for a muse of fire” speaks the chorus at the opening of Henry V, now playing in a lively, full-hearted production by Voices Found Repertory. And, whether by the magical inspiration of some Graeco-Roman demigoddess or not, this young troupe is certainly ablaze. Coming in at a brisk 90 minutes, their stripped-down version crackles like a holiday bonfire: playful yet sincere, and delivered with ebullient theatrical flair. It’s more fun than you ever thought Shakespeare could be.
Despite having the famous “we band of brothers” speech, Henry V is rarely performed in the States, much less in Milwaukee. The play’s blend of dynastic politics and flagrant monarchic propaganda never seemed to resonate much with American companies.The historic battle of Agincourt was bloody in the extreme (as Medieval battles tended to be) and was arguably an invasion. But Voices Found has been working with the Shakespearean corpus for several years, and this is perhaps their most polished production yet, and they make the play their own. Dragging four centuries of dusty commentary into the trash folder, they focus on the drama, action, and comedy: ditching the moral dilemmas and weighty dynastic politics of, say, the Timothee Chalamet version, and embracing instead the rousing adventure tale, with underdog heroes, high stakes, and hot rivalries, in all the bright colors and heightened emotions of a comic book. It’s as if the makers of history were all in their 20s, playing war like it was a round of Fortnight. English patriots would love it.
Like their last season’s Macbeth, the show is set in a post-apocalyptic future: A soldier might carry a crowbar or claw hammer rather than a sword; one character’s gigantic battle maul would be instantly recognizable to any player of the Fallout franchise. A set by Michael Cienfuegos Baca and costumes by Hannah Kubiak carry out the concept elegantly and economically. But the setting serves rather to free up the storytelling than to weigh it down with conceptual baggage. Director Alec Lachman takes an irreverent approach, adding hilarious grace notes, like having the French court constantly smoking cigarettes. With loving attention to detail, and fully committing to their play-world, the actors create moments that—as in all good theater, and especially in good Shakespeare—wordlessly reveal relationships and psychology. The battle scenes are like cosplay fighting, but no less exciting for that, because by this time we have been thoroughly charmed into willingly suspending our disbelief.
We can see from the beginning that this is an ensemble show, when the whole cast powerfully delivers the chorus’ speech, trading sentences, phrases, and single words, in turn and in unison. With one of the strongest casts that Voices Found has ever assembled, everyone has clearly contributed to creating the vivid moments of the performance, and their joy in performing makes the text sing like an instrument in the hands of a musician in the groove. Most of the actors play double roles, and they all bring full-blooded commitment, but certain characters stand out. Caroline Norton would never be menacing on the battlefield, but with a painted-on beard, she makes for a wonderfully scurrilous and feisty soldier. With his rumbling voice and the carriage of a marine, Thomas Sebald would indeed be someone you’d want fighting on your side, while, whimsically cast as “Alice,” the Princess’ companion, he adds hilarity to a scene performed entirely in French, with a few mangled English words. Caroline Fossum plays said Princess with such poise and charm that we instantly fall in love with her; Rebekah Farr makes for an effectively pissy Dauphin, while A.J. Magoon plays the French King quite straight, but creates a delightful Kabuki-like stylization for the doddering Archbishop of Canterbury.
Naturally, the actor playing Henry grounds the play. As this untried ruler, inspirational speaker, canny diplomat and ad hoc tough guy, Jake Thompson gives the ensemble a solid center, with a unique combination of careful thought and irrepressible charisma. You can see Henry working hard to make being a king look easy. He wears a smiley-face medallion, as if to remind himself that his job is to present unshakable optimism; his speeches are low-key, often with a carefully-enunciated “but” separating long chains of verbiage. It’s a winning performance that makes us hungry to see the other two plays featuring Prince Hal.
Yet there are no real good guys or bad guys here; just doughty underdogs and overconfident antagonists. Henry sees an opportunity and goes for it, in the classic heroic fashion. The moment when he learns the magnitude of his victory is as powerful as one could wish. If this show has a theme— beyond just being an exciting yarn— it is to show how much a leader can accomplish by convincing their followers that anything is possible.
With this production, Voices Found, along with the recently-founded Aura Theatre Collective, have raised the bar for the performance of Shakespeare in Milwaukee. You owe it to yourself: go see this show!
Voices Found Repertory presents
by William Shakespeare
playing through December 15
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