Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey opens its 45th season with a staging of “Henry V” that musters flourish and dash despite its shortage of splendor. Focusing her production on the richness of the language rather than pomp and pageantry, director Bonnie J. Monte has mounted a patriotic hymn that is absorbing and lucid, setting the action on an almost barren stage where roping, old flats and trunks mark the boundaries. The episodic drama draws eerie contemporary parallels with the seemingly unending war on terrorism and the role of leadership.
The performances offer a richly layered balance of valor, ribald humor, treachery, villainy and ardor.
David Conrad is a noble young king. Sporting an Errol Flynn beard, he offers a robust portrait of Henry, balancing reason, passion and courage. His playful romantic encounter with Princess Katherine of France (Kate Baldwin) brings a note of humor that’s refreshing even if it does comes late in the game. Shakespeare’s historical chronicle is rich with soaring prose, and Conrad vigorously rallies the troops, with “Once more unto the breach” providing heroic imagery for a nation at war.
The role of Chorus is a little forced and actor-y as presented by Jack Wetherall, rather than a simple device for exposition. The insufferably headstrong Dauphin is keenly drawn by a disagreeably haughty John Patrick Doherty. There’s bold support from Raphael Nash Thompson as the tough and trusted Exeter and Ames Adamson as pedantic Welsh upstart Fluellen.
Brent Langdon makes the pugnacious Pistol more of a sympathetic clown than a blowhard. His rowdy pals are the thieving mercenaries, Bardolph and Nym, respectively played by Scott Whitehurst and Darren Matthias as surly brutes.
Baldwin is a sweetly hesitant and demure Katherine, humorously assisted in matters of language by Chantel Jean-Pierre as her lady-in-waiting. Jean-Pierre doubles as tavern hostess Mistress Quickly, but her description of the old scoundrel Falstaff’s death falls curiously short of the Bard’s poignancy.
Monte has elected to avoid clash, fury and combat. Battle scenes amount to actors hollering as they scurry off stage with swords drawn. The focus here is solid and unfussy and the text rings clear.
Clocking in at three hours-plus, the production is a sturdy season opener. The bloody struggle for power will continue in October when Monte mounts “Blood and Roses,” an adaptation of “Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3.”