A 'Henry V' with a gender difference
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Special to The Advertiser
By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Director and producer Tony Pisculli says the reason for using an all-female cast for "Henry V" was "to give local female actors a shot at a broader range of parts, but mostly to take maximum advantage of the local talent pool."
The performance result, however, suggests that the decision was mainly expedient, given that the Hawaii Shakespeare Festival's three productions quickly use up the available male actors. Some individual performances are quite good but are a difficult fit into the rampant testosterone and militancy that comprise the action.
The women in "Henry V" may represent their characters well but don't become them. It adds additional underscoring to the fact that — no matter how we might prod at our imaginations — we are always in the theater and never on a battlefield.
And the battlefield scenes are the best part.
The play is part of Shakespeare's history series that follows Henry's misspent youth and his maturing into leadership as his people's king. In it, he triumphs over a superior French army at the Battle of Agincourt and delivers the powerful "band of brothers" speech that rallies the troops and sets English flags to waving.
While most of the action happens offstage, there are some guerrilla hand-to-hand knife fights and a neatly presentational flurry of archers' arrows represented by uncurling a bevy of white ribbons. Percussion accompaniment by Damned Spot Drum is very successful at creating a sense of urgency and martial tension.
The action scenes happen late in the play, and to get there we must work through the tedium of war preparations and discord in the ranks, guided by a Chorus character and burdened by too many patterned and intoned speeches that cause us to sometimes wonder whether even the actors understand what they're saying.
Nevertheless, out of this come more than a few performances worth noting.
Elizabeth Wolfe has earned her Shakespeare stripes in earlier seasons with the festival, and essays a competent King Henry in this production. Articulate of speech and clear in meaning, her Henry suggests a close cousin to Hamlet, who would prefer to be introspective and must be compelled into action.
Erin SuJan Kim delivers most of her Chorus lines as though she were sharing a fabulous joke and turns serious only in the final scenes. Betty Burdick has the rustic, bombastic role of Pistol, who would rather shirk than fight but can rise to the occasion when necessary.
Peggy Anne Siegmund as Fluellen and Eden-Lee Murray Jellinek as Gower tread the line between comedy and drama — Siegmund with a florid Welsh accent and Jellinek looking with her pencil moustache and swagger stick like she stepped out of a 1940s movie.
Getting to play her own gender is Eleanor Svaton as French princess Katherine, struggling delightfully with English words and bringing a refreshing tone to a courtship scene with Henry that follows the battle.
So, if drumbeats and a good reading of "Saint Crispin's Day" can set your skin to tingling, or if you'd like the experience without reading it for yourself, you might take in "Henry V."
Joseph T. Rozmiarek has been reviewing theater performances in Hawai'i since 1973.