Henry the Fifth I am: Burrows in Henry V.
for a King
By James Yeara
William Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Epstein
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.,
through Aug. 31
Earlier in the summer I concluded a review of Shakespeare
& Company’s comedic mess of Macbeth by stating,
“For those who don’t think post-Sept. 11 theater needs a World
Trade Center homage with red foam noses and squirting flowers
. . . there’s always next season.” So, it’s with chagrin that
I write of the company’s recently opened Henry V that
the red noses worn by the nonrulers turn out to be a good
idea here, and no one needs to wait until next season to find
the excellence of the concept played out. Henry V is
smartly staged, continually entertaining, unusually funny,
and occasionally thought-provoking.
Following the company’s seasonal theme—the connections between
war, politics, and patriotism—this production makes a worthy
companion to the excellence of Golda’s Balcony. Henry
the king has two soliloquies and three barn-burning monologues,
including the Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations mainstays
“Once more into the breach dear friends . . .” and the “we
few, we happy few, we band of brothers” speech that Olivier
used to rouse British troops during World War II. The play
is thus a patriotic field day, full of rousing speeches, comic
bits to connect with the common man, and plenty of battle
talk. The title role has affinities with Hamlet, and
it’s often a testing ground for actors wanting to hone their
chops for the latter role.
There is no need, however, to test lead actor Allyn Burrows,
or any of the 9-person cast (Johnny Lee Davenport, Henry David
Clarke, Jonathan Croy, Jason Asprey, Tony Simotes, Michael
F. Toomey, Ariel Bock, Susanna Apgar, Carolyn Roberts). They,
long ago, were teachers, and they smartly put the play through
its paces. All speak the speech with clarity and create characters
with physical aplomb, twin abilities that have become Shakespeare
& Company hallmarks. (It is not merely coincidental, after
all, that Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was created for
Each actor plays multiple characters—capturing the nobles
and the clowns, the English and the French—with a verbal and
physical deftness that is stunning after the hammy Macbeth.
They share and shine in the essential role of the Chorus:
Their request for the audience to supply with their imaginations
the various locales and battles is readily facilitated by
the specificity and focus of the actors. This is as clear
and precise ensemble work as you could find on any stage.
Yet Henry is the center, and Burrows follows up his 1998 portrayal
of Prince Hal in Henry IV by creating the ideal politician-king
in the mature Henry. He is all guile all the time, with a
smile that wins as often as it warns. Burrows’ King Henry
is as comfortable on the throne as he is on the battlefield
or in the boudoir, and he has the self-assurance and calming
effect of a CEO manipulating the board of directors. Even
with all the comic bits swirling about him, Burrows keeps
his Henry focused on his own golden parachute: the throne
As excellent as the cast is, the directorial touches are astounding.
Typically the acting star of Shakespeare & Company’s summer
mainstage, director Jonathan Epstein takes the cast and the
audience through England and France with verve and wit, catching
all the comedy in the play and all the humanity of those whom
he calls the “unlit” in his program director’s notes: “History
is often told as if it were the story of the well-lit, but
it is mostly the unlit who create, suffer, endure, and overcome
the events of their time.”
Eric Bogosian, directed by Neil Pepe
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Aug.
Eric Bogosian’s new play, Red Angel, in which he stars
as a college professor engaged in a psychosexual dance with
a student, recently concluded its run on the WTF’s Nikos Stage.
Before it resumes a run elsewhere, Bogosian is going to have
to better convey to an audience the reason for the play’s
It is clear from the outset that Bogosian’s professor-writer,
David, has an eye for young women, and we soon set to wondering
if he is having an affair with his sexy student Agnes (Sarah
Hudnut), who has joined him at his home with her rather sexless
fiancé, Phil (Nathan Corddry). Also present is another student,
Leena (Dagmar Dominczyk), who occupies the periphery of the
set in a manner that makes us very curious as to her intentions.
When Phil falls ill, the stage is set for David and Leena,
who is not one of his students, to get to know each other.
Before long we are engaged in a clever battle of wills in
which it is unclear who is seducing whom. The manipulations
and tensions call to mind the good old psychological gamesmanship
of thrillers like Deathtrap and professor-student power
struggles as old as Shaw’s Pygmalion and as new as
Mamet’s Oleanna. However, in Bogosian’s piece, the
struggle has hints of unrealized S&M. (No doubt the rather
white-haired audience that dominated the Nikos auditorium
at the performance I attended was relieved at this lack of
As does Mamet, Bogosian uses the device of a constantly and
inopportunely ringing telephone that distracts David from
this prey (or is she?) and reveals his main interests: fame
and money. But where the device works in Oleanna, it
rings false here.
A convincing actor and a writer of some stunning monodramas,
Bogosian has an excellent ear for dialogue and insinuation.
The first act intrigues as the slyly intelligent Bogosian
and the capable and voluptuous Dominczyk begin their pas de
deux. The second act raises the stakes but, surprisingly,
starts to slacken. The third act climaxes prematurely, and
leaves us less satisfied than the on-stage masturbated David.
Even as a character study, it feels incomplete.
Nonetheless, the acting seduces, Michael Carnahan’s set captivates,
Howard Werner’s lighting beguiles and Bobby Frederick Tilly
II’s costumes tease.
Sholom Asch, adapted by Donald Margulies from a translation
by Joachim Neugroschel, directed by Gordon Edelstein
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown,
Mass., through Aug. 11
For the present production of Sholom Asch’s God of Vengeance
(originally produced in Yiddish in 1910 as Got fun Nekome)
adapter Donald Margulies has relocated the action from turn-of-the-
century Poland to a Jewish tenement in the Lower East Side
of Manhattan and has set it in 1923. It transplants well,
and Margulies has done considerable work to make the events,
not just the words, translate into meaningful action.
In God of Vengeance, Jack Chapman (Ron Leibman), is
a street-smart Jew who seeks redemption from his sinful life
through his young daughter, Rivkele (Laura Breckenridge),
whom he hopes to marry off to a respectable family. This accomplished,
Jack would close his business, the brothel, above which he
and his family live. The fragile, precarious bond between
upstairs and downstairs is trenchantly and economically revealed
in the transfer of money from a brothel client to Jack, who
then gives some of it to prostitutes and later to Rivkele.
In these few minutes, the Chapmans’ prosperity and aspirations
are directly linked back to Jack’s successful exploitation
of his own people.
Margulies and Gordon Edelstein have mounted a tragedy that
pits man against God or fate or society or whatever you want
to call that force that is bigger than mere mortals. Part
of the excitement lies in watching the fall, but more is in
watching the tragic hero stand up to and shout at that which
must ultimately destroy him.
When it comes to vengeance, few do it better than the unforgiving
God of the Old Testament. If there is an actor who can portray
such a man who takes on such a God, it is Ron Leibman. And
if there is an actress who can stand up to Leibman, it is
Diane Venora, who plays Jack’s wife, Sara, a woman who has
done her own time on the streets.
Leibman has the necessary size to play this modern tragic
hero. With his desperate smile lines that seem born of fear
and need, Leibman makes Jack a man who always seems on the
verge of danger. It’s a haunted, fierce portrayal, and Leibman
doesn’t shy from indulging the grand emotions, particularly
those of anguish and anger. It’s a brave performance.
Venora vividly lives moment to moment and reacts freshly to
the unfolding events with a sense of discovery. Her reactions
to Jack’s machinations are intensely natural, and that earthiness
further transfigures into a plucky, even Brechtian, humor
that provides a necessary counterpoint to the play’s seriousness.
Breckenridge is a lovely young actress upon whom enormous
demands are made. It’s difficult to gauge the subtleties of
her performance in the first part of the play, where she is
something of a china doll regarded at a distance, but as she
grows into, or with, the role, she lends a raw power to the
Marin Hinkle invests the prostitute, Manke (who befriends
Rivkele), with a sense of resilient grace. It’s a pivotal
character, and without an actress of Hinkle’s quality, there
would be insufficient heart and life force in the play. After
her triumphant Miss Julie at the Berkshire Theatre
Festival, this must have seemed a cakewalk, but Hinkle invests
it with such emotion that it more resembles a walk on a tightrope.
Neil Patel’s set offers some architectural impossibilities,
but it works splendidly on an impressionistic level and is
easily the most impressive set of the season, here or anywhere.
Authentic costumes by Candice Donnelly and decadent lighting
with just enough hints of the tragic, by the remarkable Rui
Rita, further draw us into this vast yet claustrophobic world
ruled by a near-merciless God.
a Cherry on Top
Saint She Ain’t
by Denis King, book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh, choreography
by Gerry McIntryre, directed by Eric Hill
Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 10
If you truly love tap dancing and can tell the difference
between clogging and a time step, A Saint She Ain’t
is for you. If you like parodies of the feel-good wartime
film musicals, A Saint She Ain’t is for you. If you’re
a Turner Classics or American Movie Classics fan, or have
had dreams about W.C. Fields, Mae West, Gene Kelly, Abbot
and Costello, Rita Hayworth, and Jimmy Durante starring in
a screwball romantic comedy with jive dancing and a happy
ending, A Saint She Ain’t is for you. If you like new
works, never performed on an American stage, works as much
about American heart and soul as they are about show business,
A Saint She Ain’t is for you.
But if you simply want to be entertained the way really good
cherry cheesecake can entertain you, rattling each sense as
you taste its richness, then you really must see A Saint
She Ain’t. It was made for you. My 14-year-old
daughter laughed as much as the senior citizens who were bussed
in from Long Island to see this show, and at first she thought
the Mae West character was based on Jessica Rabbit. In a summer
of pretenders on local stages, A Saint She Aint is
the real deal, a musical that makes you remember that even
in the worst of times you can have the best of laughs. This
is a show that deserves a long run after its summer stop in
the Berkshires in its American premiere, because it makes
its audience laugh, makes its audience smile, and makes their
hearts lighter than their wallets. And that’s just about as
good a deal as you can get in show business.
The briskly paced production, with its cartoon set of Hollywood
bursting at sunrise or sunset (depending on which way the
lights shine), is half Molière and half Hollywood iconography.
This production simply glows. Its convoluted plot about unfaithful
lovers gets played out with dead-on impersonations of W.C.
Fields (P.J. Benjamin), Mae West (Allison Briner), Rita Hayworth
(Christina Marie Norrup, whose legs are magical), Gene Kelly
(Jason Gillman), and, especially, Abbott (Jay Russell) and
Costello (Roland Rusinek), who almost steal the show in a
production full of thieves.
The 14 songs and dances of A Saint She Ain’t spritz
through the two-hour musical, hanging in the air like bubbles.
The musical’s book contrives the song and dance for each number,
usually with a winking “flashback, flashback, flashback,”
as if A Saint She Ain’t were some elaborate long-form
improvisation exercise with its own screwball logic.
But when the dances are as lively as “I Only Dig That Jive”
and the tap-challenge duet “Can’t Help Dancing,” and the lyrics
are as lively as the Bessie Smith-inspired “The Banana For
My Pie” (the Mae West sauciness of which brought the house
down Saturday night), A Saint She Ain’t swings for
the fences and hits it out of the park. By the time the “Finale
Ultimo” brings in the American flag across the Hollywood landscape,
and red, white and blue gobos cast Old Glory on the walls
of the theater and the mirror ball rotates sparkles on the
audience, A Saint She Ain’t achieves everything cherry
cheesecake possibly can. Taste it before A Saint She Ain’t
moves on to Westport, Conn., in two weeks. It’ll be a lot
cheaper than catching it in Manhattan.