William Shakespeare is his own best apologist. His “Henry V,” essentially a battle play with time off for knaves and love, can’t possibly be produced on stage as the monumental war of the time that it depicts, so the Bard sends out a chorus at various points to say how sorry the players are about the staging.
The chorus tells us that the actors should be more convincing, less distant, not so rushed.
They are theatrical pre-emptive strikers.
That playful constant reminder is missing, mostly, in Lantern Theater’s current production, in which the company’s artistic director, Charles McMahon, gives us a version that fits every no-nonsense phrase you can provide: feet on the ground, firmly planted, full-speed-ahead – you name it. I’m not arguing that “Henry V” is a light-headed affair by any means, but it does have a wink-wink throughout to nicely dent the gravitas.
At Lantern, it’s all done with spitfire delivery that comes at you head-on – even comic scenes with the rascally brawler Pistol (Jake Blouch) are delivered with ferocity. And in the end, the chorus, represented throughout by one actor (Krista Apple-Hodge) is quizzically carried off in what appears to be death for what appears to be a reason I cannot find.
So the timbre of this “Henry V” that rolls out on Meghan Jones’ bare-bones and practical set is a sort of monotone. Yet the production’s severity, coupled with sincerity, also gives us some lovely moments as we witness the swirl of war between the King of England and the French, and the Battle of Agincourt that ensues in 1415.
The intrigue that leads up to that battle is the meat of the play and the war scenes that take up much of the second half are generally more a triumph of staging. Shakespeare called for 44 different characters and assorted hangers-on; Lantern brings off “Henry V” with a total of eight actors and indeed, we’re always aware it’s a play, as the Bard intended us to be.
The actors change from French to British in a snap, and often switch costumes (by Mary Folino) in front of us. The war scenes and those leading right up to them are the swiftest, most compelling part of this production, spiked by Drew Billiau’s lighting design and J. Alex Cordaro’s fight choreography.
Ben Dibble is the sole player with a single role – Henry V – and his pep-talk scenes in which he mentors his troops are outstanding. So is his vulnerable wooing scene with Katherine (K.O. DelMarcelle), daughter of the King of France. The cast is rounded out by David Bardeen, Mark Cairns, Matt Tallman and Mal White, all fine in their many back-and-forths between English and French characters. They are, in this case, truly their own worst enemies, which is a good thing.
HENRY V runs through April 14 at Lantern Theater Company, playing at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, between Market and Chestnut. Tickets: $30-$38. www.lanterntheater.org or 215-829-0395.