As the old show-business adage goes, you gotta have a gimmick; and the fresh, new approach that Raleigh, NC-based Burning Coal Theatre Company and Fight or Flight aerial theater company of New York City applies William Shakespeare’s circa 1599 history play Henry V is breathtakingly original. Henry V (On Trapeze) soars on five low-flying trapezes at Burning Coal Theatre in the Murphey School, near the Historic Oakwood Section of downtown Raleigh.
Burning Coal and Fight or Flight have fitted this stirring chronicle of King Henry V of England (1386-1422) with figurative wings that carry the play to new heights (pun intended). Indeed, Fight or Flight co-artistic directors Steven Cole Hughes and Eileen Little work their own very special brand of theatrical magic on the bare stage of the Burning Coal Theatre, with an eight-person cast of actor/aerialists creating the illusion of a multilevel set as they use the low-flying trapezes as thrones where a king can literally look down his nose at supplicants, scaffolds where traitors are summarily executed, and various and sundry other locales where the drama and comedy of Henry V flourish.
New York actor Dan Loeser is simply splendid as the young but no longer boyish King Henry V of England. Formerly a playboy prince who was the boon companion of all manner low-life degenerates, such as the portly drunken knight Sir John Falstaff (Jade Arnold), Prince Hal is now a picture of sobriety as King Henry; and Loeser plays him with palpable charisma and the laser-like intensity of the young Marlon Brando.
When Louis the Dauphin (Whitney Madren), the arrogant son of wily King Charles VI of France (Lucius Robinson), foolishly picks a quarrel with Henry, he finds that the young monarch has what on the American frontier was called “true grit”; and after “a little touch of Harry in the night” and the king’s rousing Saint Crispen’s Day (“band of brothers”) speech, the vastly outnumbered English army not only vanquishes the French at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) but decimates the French army, while suffering minimal losses.
Henry’s subsequent courtship — in halting, broken French and English — of the beautiful but heretofore cloistered French Princess Katherine of Valois (played by Eileen Little) — is an absolute delight, with verbal volleys that equal the best bon mots during the edgy courtship of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Watching Loeser as the usually fierce but now suddenly bashful Henry trip over his own tongue while Katherine and her duenna Alice (John Allore) chuckle at his discomfort is one of the highlights of the show.
Eileen Little also impresses as a one-woman Chorus, who narrates the show, and as the larcenous Bardolph, whom his erstwhile pal Henry executes for looting French churches. John Allore is a stitch as Alice, the grief-stricken Hostess Quickly, the bellicose Welsh Capt. Fluellen, and others; and Whitney Madren’s strutting and fretting as the cocky Dauphin is also highly commendable.
Frequent Burning Coal standout Jenn Suchanec likewise impresses as the pugnacious Nym; and she is even more impressive as the French herald Montjoy, who initially shares the Dauphin’s overconfidence when she delivers his first scornful messages to the English king, but gradually wilts as she realizes that King Henry V is not the callow youth that her the Dauphin and the French nobles imagine him to be.
Jade Arnold is good as Henry’s uncle and advisor the Duke of Exeter, Falstaff, etc.; Samantha Corey adds crisp cameos as the haughty French Duke of Orléans and others; and Lucius Robinson smoothly segues between his roles as the French King, Falstaff’s melodramatic buddy Pistol, etc.
The ingenious production concept and exuberant staging by director Steven Cole Hughes and aerial choreographer Eileen Little deserve the highest praise, and so do the subtle but effective shifts employed by lighting designer Chris Popowich and costume designer Karen Williams to underscore key incidents preceding and following the fateful Battle of Agincourt and to differentiate the English from the French in this epic historical drama in which eight highly talented actors and actresses portray dozens of roles, large and small, but always with distinction.
If you are bored by Museum-Theater productions of the timeless works of the immortal Bard of Avon and appalled by Run-and-Scream approaches to Shakespeare’s plays, give Henry V (on Trapeze) a gander. You probably will never see a more imaginative and invigorating retelling of this familiar chapter from English history.
SECOND OPINION: Dec. 7th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4.5 of 5 stars): http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/henry-v-on-trapeze-at-burning-coal/Content?oid=2719999; Dec. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/12/03/1686517/a-fun-low-flying-take-on-henry.html; Dec. 2nd Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=5213; and Nov. 30th Raleigh, NC WRAL.com blog by Debbie Tullos: http://www.wral.com/entertainment/out_and_about/blogpost/10442964/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Dec. 2nd Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/12/shakespeare-takes-flight-in-henry-v-on-trapeze/.)
Burning Coal Theatre Company and Fight or Flight present HENRY V (ON TRAPEZE) at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10, 2 p.m. Dec. 11, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 15-17, and 2 p.m. Dec. 18 in Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, 224 Polk St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.
TICKETS: $20 ($15 students, seniors 65+, and active-duty military personnel), except $10 Thursdays and $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain).
BOX OFFICE: 919/834-4001 or http://www.etix.com/.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919/834-4001.
The Play: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_V_(play) (Wikipedia).
Study Guide: http://www.bard.org/education/studyguides/Henryv/henryv.html (Utah Shakespeare Festival).
The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Shakespeare (Wikipedia).
The Director: http://www.fightorflighttheater.com/Fight_or_Flight/SteveBio.html (Fight or Flight).
The Director’s Blog: http://stevencolehughes.blogspot.com/.
King Henry V of England: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_V_of_England (Wikipedia).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.