Encore Michigan

Shakespeare in Detroit goes into the breach with Henry V

ReviewShakespeare March 23, 2017 Patrice Nolan

DETROIT – There’s something spunky, if not downright Quixotic, about a theatre troupe dedicated to bringing “approachable Shakespeare” to Motown. Artistic Director Sam White and her Shakespeare in Detroit company have overcome the odds – winning new audiences to the timeless relevance of Shakespeare’s stories by bringing them to the heart of the city. As SID launches its fifth season, it is appropriate that White opens with The Bard’s most famous underdog – the man behind one of history’s greatest upsets – Henry V.

This SID production is directed by Detroit veteran D.B. Schroeder, who also directed the company’s critically acclaimed Macbeth, staged a couple years ago at New Center Park. For this production, Schroeder had the challenge and opportunity to scale the sprawling Henry V story to fit a more intimate space and trim the nearly 50-person character list to match a 12-person cast. It works admirably.

Thanks to the generosity of The Banyan Foundation, Henry V is being staged in the ballroom of the Stearns Mansion in Detroit’s West Village neighborhood. The setting informs the nature of this inventive production in a few ways. The mansion was built in the early 1900s, and although the words and action are 100% Shakespeare, the costumes by Cal Schwartz have a WWI military cut that suits the house itself. Additionally, the Tudor (Arts & Craft) style of the home leans into the Elizabethan era in which Shakespeare first staged his play.

Henry V is performed in the mansion’s ballroom and staged in the round, with the audience seated along the perimeter of the room. The intimate space is simply and effectively lit by the opulent chandelier in the center of the room. There are few scenic elements, but the chorus performs a carefully worked out choreography of steamer trunks and suitcases that are arranged to serve as thrones, tables, and battle terrain, while also facilitating quick, onstage costume changes.

Shakespeare himself provided a contingency for these simplified production values, opening Henry V with a prologue exhorting the audience to imagine the huge scope of the battle, the thundering charge of horses, the clang of battle, and the pageantry of the advancing armies.

To make it all fit in the space, the budget, and the audience–friendly running time of less than two hours, the script was trimmed. Schroeder made the tough but effective decision to cut the sub-plot storyline associated with Sir John Falstaff and the common folk who followed him over from the preceding historical plays, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2. He also removes the comic-relief scene in which the French princess, Katherine, tries to learn English from her lady-in-waiting.

While purists will mourn the loss of these favorites, what remains is a taut, fast-paced tale of courage and inspirational leadership. Henry’s two big speeches – “Once more into the breech” and the justly famous St. Crispin’s Day address – are given room to shine. Joe Sfair, in the title role, gives Henry the warmth and humanity that makes this young king’s call to his “band of brothers” so stirring. Sfair works the intimate space, appealing directly to audience members and clasping their hands as he urges them (his weary army) to embrace their destiny. Honor is certain; out-numbered five-to-one by the well-rested French army, the English face honorable death or incredible victory. One of the most moving moments of the play comes when Henry – unable to ascertain the status of the battle – learns from the French Herald that the English, against all odds, have won the day. The audience shares that joy.

This hard-working cast, like the victorious English army, pulls together to make the daunting effort of staging Henry V a triumphant one. Casting is diverse and gender-neutral, with many of the actors playing multiple roles, especially members of the chorus: John Arden McClure, Tayler Jones and Annie Dilworth. The company also includes Connie Cowper, Dante Jones, Amanda Rae Evans, Jessica Wilson, John Denyer, Hugh Duneghy II, Falynn Burton and Casey Hibbert. Emily Pierce is Stage Manager.

Note that Henry V runs this week only, closing Sunday March 26. There are many reasons to catch this SID production, with its unique staging, historic venue, and gifted cast. Perhaps the best reason to see this particular production of Henry V is the relevance of the story to our city, with its scrappy, never-say-die Detroit spirit, exemplified by the Shakespeare in Detroit company itself.

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Week of 5/23/2022

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