I was a bit skeptical when I first heard about Cohesion Theatre Company (“Cohesion”) setting its production of Shakespeare’s Henry V in Appalachia, smack dab in the middle of the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. But then I remembered that this is Cohesion. Last year, Director/Co-Founder Alice Stanley set Hamlet in grunge-era Seattle and it was outstanding. Leave it to Cohesion to get me excited to see a bluegrass Battle of Agincourt.
Henry V is the play in which rowdy Prince Hal from Shakespeare’s earlier histories, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, has matured and is serving as King of England. It is early in Henry’s reign and he has been advised that he has legal claim to rule France. England is already engaged in the long and bloody 100 Years War, but Henry vows to take the French crown, personally leading his men to the new, French battlefield.
It’s surprising how natural Shakespeare’s Elizabethan words sound in a backwoods Appalachian accent. The cadence and structure of The Bard’s language match so well with an Appalachian drawl that, to my ear, it was actually easier to parse than the very formal British pronunciations found in more traditionally staged Shakespearean plays. The appearance of the show – the rustic cabin designed by always-excellent Cassandra Dutt and the period-appropriate costuming by Heather Johnston – also bore out the Appalachian motif.
One scene in particular in this production really stands out for me. Prefaced by a spirited rendition of the popular St. Crispin’s Day speech by Zach Bopst, Cohesion’s Battle of Agincourt scene gets everything right. It marries Lana Riggins’ lighting design, which is extraordinarily beautiful throughout, with Brad Norris’ fight choreography, Heather Johnston’s costumes and Cassandra Dutt’s set in a way that feels massive and cinematic.
The effect of the slow motion clash is completed by the singing of haunting, a cappella “Wondrous Love,” performed by the Storyteller, Lance Bankerd, and a chorus of the dead. Kudos to Music Director Matthew Casella for making a compelling scene even more captivating.
One of the primary reasons Directors Stanley and Jongeward cite for re-timing and placing the setting is to focus on the characters as people. Stripping away the regalia and glorification of violent conflict provides the actors with opportunities to humanize war. The orientation of this production’s stage – a three-quarter round – makes for a very intimate house. Sitting in the front row, there were times I was literally inches from action.
Zach Bopst portraying the eponymous king, Henry the Fifth, uses this proximity to excellent effect. Bopst employs subtle and nuanced facial expressions, gestures and general physicality to reveal Henry the man, not just Henry the king. I welcomed these elements as Bopst skillfully displayed Henry’s vulnerability and honorable moments such as his disdain for a member of his army stealing from the French. The possessory interest Henry has in Katherine (adeptly played by Micaela Mannix), on the other hand, is cringe-worthy in its rapeyness.
Meghan Stanton ably portrays Henry’s closest advisor, the Duke of Exeter. Adopting a militaristic tone as the take-charge character, her posture and demeanor are taut and alert as she works to keep Henry safe and well-informed. Stanton’s face is stoic and impassive, projecting strength and determination to those that might oppose her friend and liege, Henry.
Lance Bankerd plays several characters in Henry V, including the traitorous Lord Scroop and a French soldier. His most significant role, though, is The Storyteller, or Chorus. He opens the production with the lengthy prologue that sets the scene and asks the audience directly to apply some imagination to the show, mentally conjuring horses, for example, when the text refers to them but when there are, for practical reasons, no actual horses onstage. Bankerd’s voice and presentation are strong and charming. He comes to us as a friendly guide, to help us navigate the play. He also possesses a lovely singing voice, which is evidenced a number of times, but none more beautifully than in the Battle of Agincourt scene I described earlier.
Caitlin Carbone is really funny. Her portrayal of the Dauphin, son of the King of France (the wonderful Nancy Linden) was terrific. Carbone combines the many traits of the Dauphin – inexperience, ambition, privilege, incompetence – and embodies a character who is selfishly-motivated, but so awkward and out-of-touch with “regular” people as to be comical. Carbone’s skilled physical comedy, coupled with Shakespeare’s clever prose, make for a welcome respite from the violence and treachery of war.
Cohesion Theatre Company’s production of Henry V is clever and novel without being cute or silly. Under the expert direction of Alice Stanley and Jane Jongeward, the talented cast and creative team move this Shakespeare classic 400 years into the future and into the backwoods of an entirely different continent. There, they examine what the story has to say about leadership, ruthlessness, and war. The result is an engaging production of Shakespeare as you’ve never seen it before. I enthusiastically recommend that you make a spot in your March calendar to catch a performance of Henry V.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with one intermission.
Note: A special industry night performance will be held on Monday, March 20th at 8 pm, at which tickets for all artists will be $10.00.