THEATER | The Guthrie’s lively, compelling “Henry V”

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In the staging of Henry V currently being presented by the Acting Company and the Guthrie Theater, “the language of Shakespeare comes alive for a new generation!” We know this because we are informed so at the play’s outset by the same stentorian voice that commands us to disable our cell phones. In apparent deference to the fact that we of the new generation (at least, those of us who are likely to be found at the Guthrie) can’t get enough Canadian indie rock, at the production’s conclusion the cast take their bows to the strains of the Arcade Fire. Fortunately, sandwiched between those wince-worthy moments is a great show.

henry v, a play written by william shakespeare and directed by davis mccallum. presented through february 1 at the guthrie theater, 818 s. 2nd st., minneapolis. for tickets ($18-$34) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

Director Davis McCallum wisely resists what must have been a great temptation to unnecessarily underline the 21st-century resonance of Shakespeare’s story about a callow king who invades a foreign land out of personal spite yet is certain that God supports his cause. We can’t help but imagine a mission accomplished banner flapping from the ramparts as—spoiler alert!—Henry smugly confronts the defeated French monarch. Matthew Amendt plays Henry, in one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen on any local stage. Amendt’s Henry is a man wholly convinced of his divine right to rule even as he discovers that, as my friend’s father once put it, “growing up’s a bitch.” We completely understand Henry’s authority, even as we question his wisdom.

The production indeed fulfills its promise to its funder, the National Endowment for the Arts, to make Shakespeare accessible—the actors wield the Bard’s language with such comfort and enthusiasm that we forget that we’re supposed to be having difficulty following it. The troupe do justice both to the play’s broad comedy and to its high tragedy; they seem to understand, as Shakespeare did, that the two elements should intermingle on stage as surely—and cruelly—as they do in life. Only towards the play’s conclusion does the production become too accessible; the courtship scene between Henry and his cousin Katherine (Kelley Curran) plays like the conclusion to a romantic comedy. Amendt’s hammy wooing is very funny, but overall the tableau seems like a bonbon tossed to the war-weary audience rather than a crucial scene demonstrating Henry’s persistent need to seek justification for doing what he was going to do anyway.

Neil Patel’s set, its main element a tall semi-circular wall with unexpected doors, is a marvel of utility. In the small Dowling Studio, the production achieves remarkable effects of stagecraft while never seeming to try too hard—director McCallum understands that the mere toppling of a table, when you’re that close to it, can cause hearts to jump. In the past I’ve urged readers to support small, adventurous companies rather than shelling out to attend the Guthrie just because it’s there; for this riveting show, however, the $18-$34 tickets are a genuine bargain. Don’t miss it.

Jay Gabler (jay@tcdailyplanet.net) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.

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