Arts » Stage

War's a Picnic

And Henry conquers Southmoreland Park.

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When I call King Henry V the tightest, most exciting production I've seen at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, I mean neither to cheer this show inordinately nor to dismiss its predecessors. Yes, under director Sidonie Garrett, this show is crisp in its action, plush in its pageantry, and all aclang with speeches and swordplay. Yes, we have a fine brace of actors taking their hacks at the most ringing martial poetry in the language. And, yes, that crumbly castle set among the stones of Southmoreland Park is a romantic beauty, looking less like something thrown up for a run than something ancient restored to glory. But, as it always is with Shakespeare in the Park, all of this hardly matters for most of the crowd. We're happy just to be there. Lounging on blankets, sipping on wine, asking each other what that last bit was about, maybe making out once the sun's gone down.

We come not to contend with great art but to dip our toes in it.

We go for the experience as much as the play, and this isn't a bad thing. But it does make reviews tricky. Every time I was on the verge of pinpointing just what it was about Nathan Darrow's turn as Henry that was leaving me cold, my mind wrenched to something like Hey! That guy's wearing a fanny pack!

Or Lots of helicopters tonight.

Or Those sweet old ladies don't seem to care that their clothes were meant to be pajamas.

The Heart of America people have wrangled, for us, jugglers and merchants and a host of Elizabethan types uttering thine and thou and flouncing around either in goofy leggings (the boys) or sans brassieres (the wenchiest girls ... and, presumably, the boys). The Paul Mesner Puppets are fun, offering up so many clever beatings of Frenchmen that I urge the talk-radio crowd to put off their fence building for a night and get down here.

Amid all this, the show starts. And we enjoy it. The costumes are sumptuous and the battles exciting, and most of the cast is top-notch. As narrator, Robert Gibby Brand sets the scenes beautifully, his every word coming out as round and perfect as pearls. Like last year, Bruce Roach is a highlight, clipped and comic as Officer Fluellen and always absolutely intelligible, no matter how baroque his speeches. As Henry, Darrow sometimes summons majesty, sounding like church bells on a hilltop, but he just as often barrels through lines that we should have the chance to savor. And when he rushes, he tends to stick with a single tone and inflection, spitting out strings of sound-alike words with no syllables stressed.

This matches the whole show: Out in the park, everything comes out simple. Here, a king declares a war of choice to prove once and for all that he's not the drunken youth he used to be. Even as we live the real-life consequences of such ill governing, we applaud uncritically. We celebrate him, later, when he deplores war itself. Finally, in a warm climax, we savor his wooing of Katherine (the wonderful Ingrid Andrea Geurtsen), the French princess offered up as a term of victory. Having never met this woman, he speaks of loving her, and we swoon at the poetry, stagecraft and acting, accepting his smooth talk not as diplomacy but as his pure heart.

Shakespeare has become a summer outing, and not a particularly taxing one at that. This great, confounding play is not a river we raft, braving its rocks and learning its ways; it's a river we picnic by, feeling a midsummer's peace.

Not a bad thing at all, actually. There's no peace of any kind out at Avila University's Goppert Theatre. A world ago, in the late '80s, playwright Lee Blessing, aggrieved by the grim tide of world headlines, got to work exposing the troubles that terrified him. Chief among them: the rising anti-Americanism of many Middle Eastern countries, whose roots (and early warning shots) he explored in his drama Two Rooms, an intimate yet globe-spanning drama. The story of an American held hostage by Beirut Shi'ites, Two Rooms depicts hostage Michael's year of torture and, simultaneously, his wife's stateside torment.

Peter Weber's moving work as Michael grounds this show. He's onstage constantly — always blindfolded, beaten and dirty and halfway dead — even during the intermission when we have to walk within a few feet of the poor bastard and his third-world cell if we want to use Avilla's fancy American restrooms.

The cast is rounded out by Deonna Bouye as Michael's wife, and Jeremy Cox and Rachael Redler as, respectively, a journalist and a state department flack (neither of whom has entirely pure motives). These actors get at least one spectacular monologue each, but — unlike Weber — they tend toward this-is-important stiffness. We see them thinking about how these characters would say things rather than just saying them.

Still, grim and occasionally self-important as this is, we learn things here about the cruelties of realpolitik and nature itself. Speeches and slideshows lay out a bit of why Michael's captors hate the West. In a time when basic enlightenment principles — say, understanding the world and its people — are besieged, the activist artists deserve applause.

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