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I’m Henry the Fifth I am: Burrows in Henry V.

Fit for a King
By James Yeara

Henry V
By 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 this troupe.)

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 of France.

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.”

Just Jerking Off

Red Angel
By Eric Bogosian, directed by Neil Pepe

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Aug. 4

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 existence.

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 realization.)

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.

—Ralph Hammann

The Unforgiven

God of Vengeance
By 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 climax.

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.

—R.H.

And a Cherry on Top

A Saint She Ain’t
Music by Denis King, book and lyrics by Dick Vosburgh, choreography by Gerry McIntryre, directed by Eric Hill

Berkshire Theatre 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.

—J.Y.


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