By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 24, 2010; C01
How apt that, in a simple but effective gambit in director David Muse's "Henry V," the seminal battle of Agincourt rampages around us in darkness. The eponymous king (Michael Hayden) has already once-more-unto-the-breach-ed it through Harfleur and has roamed anonymously through his new camp, bucking up his troops. Now, in Sidney Harman Hall, the lights extinguish, and sounds of galloping horses and clashing metal thunder through the blackness.
In a sense, the moment sums up the insight of both this staging and Michael Kahn's "Richard II," running in repertory with it: These two forceful, pellucid and hugely absorbing productions -- devised by the Shakespeare Theatre Company as explorations of leadership -- show greatness to be the partner of concealment, discretion and rigorously self-denying showmanship.
Those are the qualities whose absence and presence distinguish the comparably tightly wound, yin-and-yang monarchs portrayed by the enthralling Hayden. Here's his weak king, Richard, a vain neurotic who looks as if he's prone to migraines and who freely displays his flaws and tics -- tetchiness, rashness, mood swings, self-absorption. There, by contrast, is the bottled-up, brooding Henry, who only occasionally lets his guard down, allowing us to see that his regal discipline is simply a virtuoso performance.
The showiness-asceticism split also turns up in the design of the productions, which unfurl on, and in front of, semi-ruined stone fortifications -- the dilapidation hinting at the human cost of the wars waged by Richard, Henry and their successors. (Lee Savage is the set designer for both productions.) Glinting in front of this somber backdrop, when you take your seat for "Richard II," is a gold throne whose decadent gleam soon finds a match in Richard's puff-sleeved robe and matching gloves. (Jennifer Moeller is costume designer.) The sovereign's over-the-top fashion sense is a far cry from the sober robes and armor of his critics, including his uncles John of Gaunt, the duke of York and Thomas of Woodstock (the august Philip Goodwin, Ted van Griethuysen and Floyd King).
If you don't recall that third uncle from previous encounters with "Richard II," it's no memory slip. At the top of the show, director Kahn has inserted material from "Thomas of Woodstock," an Elizabethan play sometimes grouped with the Shakespearean apocrypha. The interpolation is a smart ploy because it clarifies the tale's back story and establishes, more solidly than the canonical text, the king's missteps, including his catering to sycophantic councilors and his plan to turn England into his personal piggy bank.
These blunders prompt the rise of Richard's cousin and nemesis Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). Charles Borland lends this character a convincing average-Joe quality: He seems to turn usurper almost by accident, press-ganged by his countrymen's yen for a firm hand at the helm. Bolingbroke's regular-guy aura emphasizes his rival's fascinating mental instability -- glimpsed, for instance, when Hayden's Richard sprawls on the ground, hysterically caressing English soil after a return from Ireland; or when he falteringly hands his crown to Bolingbroke, then keeps hold of it at the last minute, a shell-shocked look on his face.Putting on a show
Henry V (Bolingbroke's son) could have told Richard a thing or two about circumspection and repressing emotion for the sake of the realm. From his first scene -- when a soon-squelched tapping of his fingers, as he sits on a high-backed wooden throne, betrays his impatience with the bombastic archbishop of Canterbury (Goodwin) -- this Henry seems a royal who knows civilization's grim side and can put on a darned good public show despite it. Sure, he's a hero -- the guy actually rappels down those stone walls -- and he's so good at inspiring others that, in the 21st century, he'd have penned a best-selling motivational book.
But illuminating moments here and there tell another story. Standing tall, his face smeared with blood, he shouts ugly threats at the besieged town of Harfleur, but when the governor (Louis Lotorto) surrenders, Henry swallows with obvious relief and staggers off, suddenly vulnerable. Later, he nods curtly to greenlight the execution of his old pal Bardolph (King), but when he's alone, he kneels and clutches at the corpse in anguish.
With this steely commander spearheading the English, there's no hope for the French -- dressed, and feather-capped, by costumer Elizabeth Hope Clancy in exuberant colors such as violet and orange. The garb signals the overconfidence epitomized by the Dauphin (an enjoyably cocky Tom Story), who gets a massage on the eve of Agincourt.
Wars are not waged by blue bloods alone, and this pageantry-peppered "Henry V" (featuring symphonic music by composer Fabian Obispo) boasts very funny commoners (Darren Matthias's thuggish Pistol, Lotorto's surly Nym) and officers (Stephen Paul Johnson's beguiling Captain Fluellen). Women are scarce in these testosterone-charged plays, but Naomi Jacobson is sharp and droll as Mistress Quickly. (The actress also creates welcome comic relief in "Richard II" as a duchess of York.) In a scene of gentler humor, Rachael Holmes brings coquettish grace to the French princess Katharine, wooed with genuine awkwardness (or is this, too, a pose?) by Henry.Resonating themes
It goes without saying that numerous themes shared by "Richard II" and "Henry V" resonate in our political climate: the dangers of arrogance, the financial price of militarism, the anxiety that comes with power, the Brownie points a dignitary reaps by appearing to empathize with plebeians. Fortunately, neither Kahn nor Muse stoops to underscoring his play's topicality, although Muse does award the break-the-fourth-wall Chorus speeches in "Henry V" to a modern-dress trio: Robynn Rodriguez in jeans, van Griethuysen in a soldier's uniform and (delightfully) Larry Paulsen as a bow-tied academic, armed with index cards and a laser pointer.
The house lights are up when Rodriguez speaks the play's final lines. The artful darkness is over; the Bard's potentates have had their day. Now we have to look for real-world leaders: Better wish ourselves luck.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Michael Kahn; lighting, Mark McCullough; composer/sound, Martin Desjardins; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; wig design, Anne Ford-Coates for Elsen and Associates. With Meredith Burns, Sun King Davis, Conrad Feininger, Joseph Ibanez, DeVon Jackson, Dan Kremer, William LeDent, John Lescault, Jason Marr, Sarah Mollo-Christensen, Charlie Francis Murphy, Adam Navarro, Todd Quick, David Joseph Regelmann, Patrick Vaill, Derrick Lee Weeden, Scott Whitehurst. About 3 hours and 15 minutes.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by David Muse; lighting, Mark McCullough; sound, Martin Desjardins; choreography, Daniel Pelzig; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; wig design, Anne Nesmith; music direction, George Fulginiti-Shakar. With the "Richard II" cast, T. Anthony Quinn and Jakob Stalnaker. About 3 hours.
In repertory, through April 10, at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit http://www.shakespearetheatre.org.