A current exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library explores Winston Churchill’s admiration for Shakespeare, above all the World War II-era patriotic inspiration of Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V. I’ll lay odds the grand old imperialist would have raised an eyebrow or two at Faction of Fools’ “attack” (their word) on the play, now running at Gallaudet University.
The troupe’s commedia dell’arte approach uses stylized voice and gesture matched with precision movement to emphasize the antic and comic possibilities of the text in this production, seamlessly integrating American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation into the fabric of the play.
Kiernan McGowan plays the king, with a tall, proud bearing, striding purposefully up and down the main aisle of the theater as he enters and exits. A quintet of equally skilled performers (Jesse Terrill, Hannah D. Sweet, Ben Lauer, Julie Weir, and Casey Johnson-Pasqua) play everybody else, switching back and forth among, by my count, 31 other characters. Performance interpreter Dr. Lindsey D. Snyder is effectively a sixth actor, joining the others on stage, reflecting in her hands and face the character(s) she is interpreting at the moment, and reacting to the goings-on around her.
Commedia makes extensive use of masks to express character, and Faction of Fools’ set of masks for Henry V, designed by Aaron Cromie and Tara Cariaso, is a visual delight. Many of them have extended noses, as if this phase of the Hundred Years’ War were to be fought between legions of Cyranos (my personal favorite, though, was a rather dog-faced item worn by Terrill as Fluellen). Readily changeable wigs and mustaches add to the fun.
Props designer Vanessa Spring-Frank devised a panoply of hand props for the actors, notably the narrow paddles representing swords and other implements, multi-functional long wooden rods, and a ridiculously long scroll filled with equally ridiculous legal jargon read early in the proceedings.
With these happy few actors playing this many characters, quick changes are a must, and the company handles the switches among designer Lynly A. Saunders’ evocative, character-specific costume bits with aplomb. The lighting design (Chris Curtis) is beautifully coordinated with the action, a signal moment being when a light cue follows on movements by a pair of actors representing a cannon shot.
With the extensive, almost non-stop, physical play commanding the audience’s attention, it would be easy for Shakespeare’s words to get lost. They don’t. The cast delivers the language as clearly as one could ask, and what the characters say and do fit together hand-in-glove, the action often giving the audience an understanding of the words that might not be as obvious in a traditional production. There are two exceptions to this pattern that go in quite different directions. The French characters speak in exaggerated accents just this side of Pepe Le Pew, sometimes sacrificing clarity for comic effect, and McGowan delivers the St. Crispin’s Day speech straightforwardly, in a way even Churchill might have approved.
Director Paul Reisman sets up a multitude of hilarious situations, too numerous to catalog here. Standouts include the attempt of French princess Katherine (Weir) to learn English from her ASL-speaking attendant Alice (Johnson-Pasqua) and a literal slapstick fight among a couple of characters in which one continues to act out being whacked while the other stops whacking and watches. Reisman keeps the pace flowing, maintaining a nice balance between the central plotline involving Henry’s leadership in a successful military campaign and the stories of the officers and common soldiers who follow in the king’s wake.
Henry V is a play set in the context of a war, and of course war is a good deal more fun if you rout the enemy readily, with minimal casualties, as did Henry’s forces at Agincourt. There are some moments in the production that, while humorous in their way, at least reference the realities of war, as when dummies representing dead soldiers are tossed into a large laundry cart as the battlefield is cleaned up.
Shakespeare’s play begins with a prologue imploring the audience to imagine the sweep of history and battle in the confines of a small theater. Never has that beginning to the play been more apt: the Faction of Fools’ style and execution of the play in a small space tucked into the backstage area of the main Elstad theater, with its small cast and a collection of props and costumes in plain sight, invites the audience’s imagination in a particularly vivid and engaging way.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Henry V, presented by Faction of Fools, plays through November 11, 2018, at Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium, 800 Florida Avenue NE, Washington DC. Remaining ASL interpreted performances are October 27 and November 2 at 8 p.m. and November 10 at 2 p.m. For tickets, go online.
Note: Audience members need to walk around to the front of the main Elstad building to enter the lobby, rather than going through the double glass doors for the Elstad Annex and Eastman Studio Theater.