Henry V may be Shakespeare's most stirring history play, with its heroic king, powerful exhortations to the troops ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), and lusty depiction of the Battle of Agincourt. At the same time, it contains a good deal of dense and difficult language, both high noble speech and slangy vernacular, as well as a fair amount of political detail that goes well beyond what a typical modern audience can be expected to find fascinating.
Director Rich Ferraioli has cut some of the politics, and some of the bantering, from his new Queens Players production at the Secret Theatre, focusing even more narrowly than does the play's full text on the character of the King. The small bit of bad news here is that we lose some of the vagabondish fun contained in some of those peripheral scenes. For example, while it's a clever touch in an American production to play Fluellen, the Welsh duke, as a southerner in a cowboy hat (complete with leeks) – and Sean MacBride Murray has fun with the role – the Irishman MacMorris isn't here, and though he may be a stereotype, he's Shakespeare's stereotype. Too, in an effort to keep the production down to two hours, some scenes that did make the cut go by almost too quickly to follow.
The good news begins with Danny Yoerges, a marvelous Henry. Any staging of Henry V needs a strong King, and especially a fairly traditional production like this one. Early in the proceedings, Yoerges seems stuck in an angry declamatory style, but his character fleshes out methodically, until by the time the young boys guarding the storehouse are killed by the fleeing French cavalry, Henry's seething, buttoned-up rage is thoroughly believable. Subsequently, after the battle is won, he transforms handily into Katherine's arch, bright-eyed wooer.
By a "traditional" production I mean the story is told straightforwardly, without extravagant sets and props, and, except for the cuts, in a form Shakespeare himself would probably recognize easily. The cast is very large, which makes for effective charging unto breaches. Casting the members of the French court as women, from King down to Herald, might in another production seem experimental or even outrageous, but after initially absorbing the conceit, one takes relatively little note of it, in large measure due to Jennifer Ewing's suitably regal performance as the French king. Jeni Ahlfeld is appropriately hot-headed at the Dauphin. (The Queen has been eliminated from the script, but she isn't missed.)
Luckily Mr. Ferraioli also cast women as the female characters: the Hostess (the former Mistress Quickly) in England; and in France, Meg Mark as a delightful and winsome Katherine and Jessica Renee Russell as a very funny Alice. The pair have a blast with the famous French-language scene where Alice teaches Katherine English words for various parts of the body. Ms. Mark is graceful, coy, funny and charming in the wooing scene as well.
Other performances of note include Thom Brown III as a very fine Chorus – mellifluous and stentorian, half Derek Jacobi, half Brad Oscar – and Jeff Burroughs as a fiery, biker-chained Pistol.
Henry V runs through Oct. 3 at the Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens.