Given the bellicose mood of our sorry world, it’s no wonder that so many theater companies are rushing into production with revivals of Shakespeare’s saber-rattling “Henry” plays. Savvy Rattlestick goes them all one better, though, with this Brechtian (“Good Soldier Schweik”) response to the hyper-patriotic “Henry V.” The smart idea of this satirical riposte was to present the “glorious” English victory at Agincourt from the point of view of the lowly foot soldiers who fought the definitive battle of the Hundred Years’ War on the muddy plains of France in 1415. Unfortunately, the cleverness of the idea bleeds out on the battlefield, as playwright Matt Pepper fails to develop a plot worthy of the situation. This only encourages director Simon Hammerstein to beat the laughs out of the material in the broadest low-comedy style.
Something’s wrong when good actors overact, as they tend to do here. But who can blame them, given a script that lacks faith in its own ideas and a production that strangles every thought with a gimmick? The design of the show gives the game away: The battlefield tents are too fussy, the uniform costumes too filthy and the physical action too buffoonish.
Pepper does the hard part, to be sure, when he presents the historic field of Agincourt as a muddy, lice-infested hellhole and brings out fighting men who are no heroes but filthy, miserable wretches who haven’t a prayer of getting out of this war alive. He also devises a properly ignoble (and potentially funny) escape plan for Bardolph (Richard Liccardo), Nym (Michael Gladis), and Pistol (Tommy Schrider), three desperate rats who kill a priest and rob his church for the cash to buy their way home.
But few members of the ensemble can match Liccardo’s skills at broad physical comedy; and the sight of everyone straining for laughs takes the fun out of Bardolph’s self-serving schemes, which include smuggling prostitutes into camp and kidnapping King Henry for ransom. Even Darren Goldstein, who shows good technique turning Shakespeare’s heroic figure of Fluellen into a sex- and blood-thirsty fighting machine, falls into the trap of burlesquing his character.
The darker edges of Pepper’s humor are better represented in his bleakly ironic view of war as a career builder for uppity monarchs who ascended their thrones on dubious political claims. And because he isn’t required to play it for big, boffo laughs, David Wilson Barnes emerges more or less on top of the game as the playwright’s mouthpiece, Will, a bitter Irish conscript who lashes out at his English companions as “part of an ignorant bloodthirsty race” that is all too “happy to march mindlessly into any senseless battle the king feels like having.”
Will is made to choke on his treasonous words when Henry V (fastidiously played by Alex Draper) makes his famed appearance on the battlefield in the wee hours before daylight. It’s a good scene, with the monarch and his subject each holding up his end of an ethical argument that turns Shakespeare’s original scene on its head. But once again, Pepper resorts to burlesque measures to resolve the scene — and true to form, his director gives the last and loudest word to the comics.
What’s lacking here is balance, something other companies intrigued by the anti-war premise of the piece might see fit to supply in subsequent regional productions.