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Oak Park Festival Theatre's new production of "Henry V," performed outdoors in Austin Gardens, is spellbinding and powerful. Tightly and intensely directed by Kevin Theis, all of the 21 cast members bring talent and clarity to their roles. Many sources say this is possibly the most accessible of Shakespeare's history plays. There is plenty of comedy and romance, too.
Belinda Bremner, in modern dress, is a recurring one-person chorus, introducing the play and encouraging us to let our "imaginary forces work" to visualize the battlefields and other far-flung locales. Shakespeare, well aware that his play's vast setting was impossible to recreate within the confines of a theater, created this role to remind us we should not expect to witness total reality. It was a wise choice to have a contemporary narrator breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience. She immediately draws us in, making the 411-year-old play seem less distant or historically remote.
The Festival Theatre interns are also utilized in many scenes, often in headsets with clipboards. They too create a sense of immediacy and add a welcoming and fascinatingly contemporary slant. This smart device creates a kind of special, backstage intimacy that draws us in. These young people do not function simply as stagehands, however, but actually participate in a number of scenes, including the rigorous battles.
Dennis Grimes is confidant and commanding as young King Henry, the key central character, who must convince his followers that he's capable of decisive action and strong leadership.
Comically using a blackboard and cut-out paper portraits like a show-and-tell presentation, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Kevin O'Brien) discusses confusing claims to the French throne, based on Henry's distant roots in the French royal family and some blurry land rights issues. A French ambassador (Joe Bianco) and others squabble over old boundaries and treaties.
Stoic, statesmanlike King Charles of France (Kevin O'Brien) has a pompous son, the Dauphin, who insults Henry V. The new English king, royally ticked off, decides to gather his troops and embark upon an invasion of France. He is leading his men to battle for the first time, and outwits traitors in his midst in the process.
Matt Engel is the haughty, petulant Dauphin.
Jude Roche, as the Duke of Exeter, uncle to Henry V, delivers the ultimatum to the French.
As daylight fades in Austin Gardens, the dramatic intensity of the play escalates.
The action revolves around this attempted conquest of France by King Henry V, which culminates in the legendary Battle of Agincourt. The hopelessly outnumbered English forces score a near miraculous victory against their French foes.
This is Henry's first experience with battle as well as love. He courts Katharine, the Princess of France. There's a sweet wooing scene with both lovers uncomfortably inept in each other's native tongue. All of this, the war and the wooing, transforms him into a mature man and a noble king.
Melissa Nedell has sexy, coquettish grace as the French princess. Her dialogue, nearly 100 percent French, is delivered with perfect comic timing. Sara M. Nichols plays Katharine's lady-in-waiting. Their shared scene, an English lesson, is a delightful highlight.
Jack Hickey is lively, funny, yet truthful as belligerent Welsh Officer Fluellen.
The youngest Bard performer I've ever seen, Miranda F. Theis, shows an impressive grasp of the material, playing the intricate role of smart-beyond-his-years Boy.
Cowardly lowlife soldiers, three stooges named Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, are played by William Bullion, Johnathan Nichols, and Aaron Christensen.
The vivid battle scenes are well-orchestrated and choreographed. The fight coordinator is Geoff Coates, with assistance from Charlie Cascino.
As Williams, a soldier, Michael Moran is riveting in his "few die well that die in battle" exchange with Henry.
The Festival production is balanced in the portrayal of Shakespeare's pro and anti-war themes, showing us the thrill and the glamour of battle, but if you pay close attention there are many sly digs at the brutality and gore of war, as well.
Lindsay Schmeling's classy costumes feature the English dressed in shades of red while the French wear tones of blue.
The simple but effective set by Aimee Hanyzewski functions well, adapting into a variety of locations smoothly and effortlessly.
Joseph Fosco's sound design is especially effective during the battle scenes, providing the thundering sound of galloping, whinnying horses, explosions, and clashing metal.
The performances, too many to mention individually, are all vivid. But let me also recognize Damien Crim as Bedford, Patrick Doolin as Westmoreland, and Jonathan Nichols as Mountjoy.
Adam Meredith is assistant director. The stage manager is Robert W. Behr, with assistance from Becca Chimis and Allison Queen.
Austin Gardens, just a half block from Downtown Oak Park, was especially beautiful the night I saw "Henry V." Yes, there are occasional distractions—cicadas, police sirens, jets descending toward O'Hare, and distant teens yelling in an alley. But it's a wonderful summer experience to watch a thrilling production like this one outdoors in such a lovely setting. Bring a picnic and enjoy!
The performance lasts about 2½ hours with one intermission.
Doug Deuchler is a retired teacher/school librarian who, when he isn't reviewing local theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, tour guide/docent and author of several books about Oak Park and surrounding communities.