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Review: First Folio flips 'Henry V' on its 14th century ear

Shane Richlen, Derek Jeck and Sean Sinitski in Henry V
Shane Richlen, Derek Jeck and Sean Sinitski in Henry V

Overall, William Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” in spite of First Folio Theatre’s magnificent work, is not one of his best.

It’s complicated, the second Act is too long and just when you think it’s over, he ties up a plotline that really didn’t thread through well in the first place. Of course, that is not any issue a theater company can be held responsible. All they can do is perform the work as written and do their collective best.

What First Folio has done in their outdoor production under the stars, essentially flipping “Henry V” on its 14th century ear, is superb.

“Henry V” is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most auditory pieces and without intense listening, one can get lost. It’s a slow build as there are a lot of explanatory scenes to get the audience to understand what is going on within the play (it’s so complicated everyone was given a summary before the play began). As such, “Henry V” is quite a bit to take on. However, director Hayley Rice has grabbed it by the throat and pushed the narrative right out there using a tour guide (Chorus played by Lydia Berger Gray) to propel the complications of the story forward.

That on its own is an excellent decision by Rice. The casting is also risky, but it works. King Henry is played by Diana (it’s DE-anna BTW) Coates. Let that settle in a bit, a woman is playing a king. She takes this role and twists it like she is wringing out a towel after a fresh swim. To say it is a refreshing take doesn’t give her effort enough credence. She’s magnificent.

“Henry V” has what feels like a cast of thousands, but the English and French roles are doubled up (some tripled). Therefore, the stage doesn’t become a crowded mess. Applause must be sent out to the entire cast as well as the director for keeping the frenetic movement smooth. Rice uses every aspect of the well-built simplified stage plus stage right, left and even allows the actors to roam within the audience. The latter really works to keep the audiences’ collective emotions within this version of “Henry V.”

The fight scenes need to be done well for when Act II drags, those scenes liven it up. They are excellently choreographed by the Stage Combat and Intimacy Designer (AKA the Chaos and Kiss designer) Rachel Flesher, and are an absolute highlight in Act II.

I could have done with a bit less of the Monty Pythonesque overwrought French accented English. However, overall the players who played multiple roles on both the French and English sides of the play did excellent work going in and out of their respective accents. Plus, the ‘all French’ scene with Sophie Scanlon and Lydia Berger Gray? Fait a la perfection.

Sound was an issue. There is no place for the sound to bounce off so acoustics are not great. Some of the actor’s voices went in and out. However, the setting is intimate enough the audience picked it up anyway. A nod goes out to the sound design by Christopher Kriz though, for the ambient sound of battle. I am hoping the next outdoor stage they build will do more to accommodate sound.

Yes, the next stage. This is the final production on First Folio’s current outdoor stage and it won’t be until 2021 before we see another outdoor production from First Folio. The stage shows its age, but it is worth celebrating the end of its life. This production gives the stage a wonderful send-off, especially seeing Shakespeare’s “Henry V” under a different, modern light. First Folio Theatre is located on the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook and it’s certainly worth the drive.

They play runs through Aug. 18. For ticket information, visit https://firstfolio.org/box-office/.

• Rick Copper is a writer, photographer, storyteller, part-time actor and comedian with a framed master’s degree from the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and a loose Certificate of Completion sheet of paper from Second City’s improv program.

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