Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks marks its thirteenth year running with a production of Henry V, directed by Alan Irvine. It is the last in a cycle of plays that mostly focuses on the youthful Prince Henry, or Hal, who starts out as a disappointing prince, drinking and carousing with dissolutes in London’s East Cheap, but eventually coming into his own as heir to the throne and then as King Henry. With the crown on his head, he is all business and little play, as PSIP demonstrates in their scenic location in Frick Park.
Lamar K. Cheston takes up the challenging role of Henry in this production, a man who must prove himself worthy of his father’s throne and who must convince his country to follow him into his great war with France. While Cheston nails the seriousness with which Henry comports himself, he lacks the spark of charisma necessary to persuade anyone. For most of the play, it is difficult to see why any soldier would want to fight for him. During the Battle of Harfleur, when he must get his men back on their feet and into the fray, his “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” rings hollow.
But something changes when he must rouse his army before the Battle of Agincourt. Cheston pours himself into the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and the audience gets a glimpse into the kind of king the English must see. This is not just a moment of overblown oration – Henry believes in his cause, believes that in this moment he will be triumphant over the French and he wants to share in that glory with the men who have come this far with him. As he says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers./For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother”, he reaches out to an audience member and clasps him by the arm. The spectators become part of the English army and there is a palpable sense that most would stand up and fight too. This is Henry (and Cheston) at his best.
Though the play is named after Henry, he is certainly not the only character involved, nor is it all serious politics and gruesome battles. Some of Henry’s old friends from East Cheap, Pistol (Charles David Richards), Bardolph (Ryan Bergman), and Nym (Sarah Carleton) join the army in hopes of striking it rich. They provide entertaining antics as the scuffle among themselves, but there is also a poignant moment when Henry will not prevent Bardolph’s execution because he feels he must uphold the law which his former friend has broken.
Princess Katherine (Amy Dick) and her lady-in-waiting Alice (Nick Benninger) also bring a touch of levity to the production. Alice tries to teach Katherine some English at the princess’s request, but Katherine does not take to it very well (she accidentally says “bilbow” instead of “elbow”). Later on, when Henry is trying to woo her, there is some difficulty in translating. And as Katherine tries to avoid Henry’s advances, she throws Alice in his way, almost ending up in a kiss.
Though the set and design of the production needs to be minimalist, Lisa Leibering’s costumes grounded the action in a medieval timeframe. They distinguish not only the French from the English in general terms (the French in red versus the English in blue), but also contrast the richly dressed French nobility from the more practically dressed English who seem far more prepared for war. Henry himself wears the same simple tunics his men wear and does not set himself above them with the trappings of a king. Moreover, the costumes help to denote new characters when actors must double and triple roles.
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks works very hard to give the audience enough material that the imagination can fill in the rest, in true Shakespearean fashion. Under the shade of a few, stately trees, they conjure up Henry V’s great struggle to make himself a force to be reckoned with and his great victory at Agincourt. It becomes easy to oblige the Chorus, “Gently to hear, kindly to judge [their] play.”
Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks’ shows are always free, including Henry V but you can find out where they’re playing next by checking out their website.