A classically-trained African-American actress and Shakespeare scholar, I am a huge fan of The Classical Theatre of Harlem for obvious reasons. To those, I add their current production of Henry V, which I beheld at the fabulously renovated Richard Rodgers Amphitheatre in Marcus Garvey (nee Mt. Morris) Park, one of three venues where it has been or will be mounted until September 4th.
CTH's Henry V aids the company's goal "to create and nurture a new, young, and culturally diverse audience for the 'classics'" by embodying aspects of Shakespeare performance from the Elizabethan era. Prior to the turn of the 21st century, Shakespeare's works, considered entertainment for the elite, largely occupied a place in "high culture." However, during the Renaissance, his plays were popular entertainment – created for and enjoyed by all strata of society. A fellow actor from a show that I was in in London aptly referred to Shakespeare as the "Steven Spielberg" of his time, contextualizing the high quality and broad appeal of the Bard's repertoire.
In this vein, in addition to using "original practices" like direct address (speaking to the audience), multi-character casting (one actor plays two or more parts), and contemporary colloquial references (i.e. to or about Harlem), there is a raw quality to CTH's HV that heightened what I felt watching a performance at the New Globe in London last year. While CTH's HV is not a comprehensive "original practices" production, I thought to myself, "This must be the flavor, energy, and spirit of a Renaissance production of the play." It is funny and irreverent at appropriate times and, ultimately, compelling and provocative. It's noteworthy that I went on opening night, which might partially account for the freshness of the performance that I saw.
Led by Ty Jones in the title role, HV’s company, production design, and direction illustrate central themes from the play like metatheatricality, the irony and cruelty of war (including ambivalence toward its "victors"), and the burden and bounty of leadership. Among the cast, there are varying levels of "fluency" with Shakespeare's language; but this isn't a problem. The roles that require the greatest command and dexterity are very well cast while the relative "greenness" of other actors works for those parts. As a whole, the company delivers, including many particularly hilarious, clear, and/or moving moments with a potent mix of heart and sophistication.