Delaware Shakespeare’s spirited production of “Henry V” has plenty of plusses. The biggest of these is a bold choice to cast the versatile Philadelphia-based actress Emilie Krause in the title role of the war-mongering king with a big heart — a role that calls for nuance, depth and (dare I say it?) manliness.
Indeed, the Henry V created by Shakespeare is a complex portrait of manhood: It’s about a playboy who grows into his own when he acquires the crown, who understands the meaning of moral and physical strength and reason, who’s competitive and determined to win even under dismal odds.
That’s a pretty good portrait of being a man, centuries back as well as today — but wait. It also works as a definition of modern Western womanhood, so casting Krause is not so out of the ordinary, especially since she has the chops to portray the many aspects of Henry V. It also addresses a particular pet peeve of many women actors: Most of the great Shakespearean roles, involving leadership and power, traditionally shut out women. They were written for men.
This is not the first time a local stage company has cast woman in a role the Bard wrote for a man. But it’s among the most successful of its kind that I’ve seen: Krause solidly grasps the part of a British king who engineers a land grab in France that leads to war and ends with the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. When she catches three trusted confidantes in a plot to murder the king, Krause nicely brings off Shakespeare’s playwriting device — first questioning them about the merits of mercy, then showing them none when she reveals what she knows.
When she addresses the citizens of a French town overtaken by the king and his troops, Krause is all business — the CEO in charge but clearly with the townspeople’s interests at heart. In the second half — which takes place in the woods, like the actual production does in Wilmington’s lovely, quiet Rockwood Park — the king hides under a cloak to discuss the war he’s personally leading. Krause is highly effective there, too.
It’s only when the play comes to its ending that the gender-neutral casting falls apart and frankly, I’m not sure that director Jessica Bedford or anyone else could save it except by editing it down beyond an acceptable level. All along, we’ve come to see Krause as a king, and the king’s gender is no matter because the production has been steadily forceful. But in the end, Henry (called Hal in the play) falls in love with the King of France’s daughter, displayed in what is probably Shakespeare’s most extensive wooing scene.
It’s supposed to be awkward — Henry speaks virtually no French, and the princess, Katharine (Savannah Jackson), hardly a word of English, although she’s been trying to learn it in a prior scene that should be funnier than it is here. Yet the wooing scene is awkward on a whole new level. The powerful conceit of the production we’ve bought into falls apart — I thought I was suddenly seeing the play on two different universes, not so parallel. And it wasn’t just me. People were questioningly looking at their friends, all of us in lawnchairs or on blankets in the three-sided Rockwood Park grove.
I won’t say that this ruined the play — the story is undeniably well told. But it did leave me with a final impression of a misfire, that something here didn’t quite gel. Whatever the result, Delaware Shakespeare took a bold leap with this particular work and is continuing that leap through the year, its 15th season. The company will be performing at homeless shelters and other places during the off-season and has dropped the “Festival” off its name to declare that it’s more than a rite of summer.
Before we leave Rockwood Park for the moment, a few more plusses about the production: the cast in general, which is up to the task in its delivery and its character-building; the live percussion by Kanako Omae Neale, tense but never overshadowing the tension Shakespeare created and the production delivers; Bridget Brennan’s simple yet effective costumes, and the sound design by Michael Hahn — the clearest I’ve heard in some time in an outdoor production in the region.
—“Henry V,” produced by Delaware Shakespeare, runs through July 30 at Rockwood Park, Wilmington, Del. delshakes.org.