Thursday, June 16, 2016

Tennessee Shakespeare Company Scores with "Henry V"

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 11:41 AM

click to enlarge slider-henry-v2.jpg
Red is passion. It's blood, lust, sin, embarrassment, anger, and revenge. It's also the color I left the theater seeing Saturday, and not for any of the usual reasons.

Red was burned into my retinas. Images of ragtag soldiers were burned into my brain. Lofty words echoed in my ears. And every little piece of it was bathed in red, red, red. 

To borrow a line from Shakespeare's titular boy king, "The fewer men, the greater share of honor." I suppose that means there's plenty of honor to go around for the 10 hard working actors taking on every role in Tennessee Shakespeare Company's Henry V, handsomely situated on stage at the University of Memphis through June 19. 

Tennessee Shakespeare's is the first revival of the Agincourt story since the River City Shakespeare Company (long defunct) crowned a female Prince Hal in the castle-like Tennessee Brewery in the early 1990s. To that end, it's overdue — off season, in a polarized nation that's gone through a shotgun blast of misguided ground wars while nationalism and nativism surged. Henry V's unique ability to function as a patriotic touchstone and fierce critique of war and its politics would have been especially resonant in the Bush era, while it lay regionally dormant. So, why now?

Because you can't keep a good, well-told story down, that's why. And Tennessee Shakespeare has delivered a spare, visually arresting epic that feels, genuinely, timeless. And so red. 

Much is made of Prince Hamlet's famous scene instructing actors. As much should be made of the Chorus' address to audiences in Henry V: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth, For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings."

Director Stephanie Shine puts a lot of faith in what happens when the power of Shakespeare's words are amplified by the imagination, and it pays off. 
There's one especially fine bit in an early scene where tennis balls — the offending gift to England from France — are bounced on stage to punctuate the action. It would have been nice to see this fantastically theatrical bit more fully developed and carried on throughout the show. But I'm not complaining. The effect is already powerfully echoed in the sounds of battle.

Set and costume design are striking, and to the point. Music composed by none other than King Henry V himself, wraps the show in uncommon authenticity. Colton Swibold — the only performer taking on a single role — is most effective as the silver-tongued king, and figurative leader of a tic-tight ensemble. It's a fine effort top to bottom but, in case I haven't made it completely clear yet, the star of this show is the color red. 

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