Harlequin Production’s “Henry V” is ensemble theater at its best. With the lone exception of Jason Marr as the title character, every actor in the cast plays multiple roles — eight actors astonishingly playing more than 50 roles.
The reason I call this show ensemble theater is because any one of these actors could just as effectively play any of the other parts and there are no leading roles, not even Henry. Sex, size and appearance don’t enter the equation. We have men playing women’s roles and women playing men’s roles, and they are all equally convincing.
Thanks to Ashley Randolph’s costumes and the actors’ good use of posture, voice and movement, it is almost impossible to recognize that the women playing men’s parts are not men and vice versa.
Again with one lone exception: Christian Doyle playing two of the women, Nell, aka Mistress Quickly, and Alice, brings off some hilarious bits of drag performance. His gestures and his feminine voice are right-on, and the fact that he has a beard adds to the wondrous absurdity.
Apropos to presenting this as an ensemble production, it is all about the words and the action. Everything else — sets, costumes, lighting — could be eliminated and it would still be an excellent show. Such theatrical dressing is icing on the cake. Marko Bujeaud’s set is a backdrop of beautiful trees and a huge pageant wagon of a type that might or might not have actually been used by roving players in Shakespeare’s time. Harlequin used the same wagon when they did this play in the Washington Center black box in 1998. It was originally designed by Seattle set designer Jeffrey Cook. It is a large wagon (easily 10 feet tall by my estimate) built of heavy old timber with a side wall that lets down to rest on barrels and serve as a thrust stage and with cleverly designed hand and foot holds actors can use for climbing. This wagon is the only set piece (other than the trees) and it is all that is needed.
The entire story is a play within a play as a roving band of actors and a narrator (called Chorus and acted by Daniel Flint, who also plays the French ambassador, a constable, Governor Harfleur, Duke of Burgundy, a soldier and a prisoner) acts out the story of young King Henry V’s invasion of France and his courtship of Princess Katherine (Maggie Lofquist). High drama is mixed with loads of comedy, since the troupe of actors is a scraggly bunch and because of the high comedy provided by Henry’s old drinking and carousing buddies — Pistol (Taryn Pearce), Bardolph (Flint), Nym (Frank Lawler), Mistress Quickly and the Boy (Lofquist).
There are two epic battle scenes, each of which is preceded by inspirational speeches from the king, and each of which is filled with marvelously choreographed sword fights. There is a comic scene worthy of Abbott and Costello in which Alice tries to teach English to Katharine. There are numerous scenes of intrigue, and an excellent if too long denouement in which Henry bargains with the king and queen of France for the hand of their daughter.
In many other plays Russ Holm has proven that he has a special knack for playing big, blustery characters, especially ones who are taken with their own authority, and he employs that here as the archbishop of Canterbury, King Charles VI of France and other nobles.
Casey Brown morphs into many diverse characters and is especially notable as Louis the Dauphin and as the French aide.
Director Scot Whitney is to be commended for an excellent job and, more importantly, for being the originator of the concept of using eight actors for a play that is usually done with 20 or more.
It is a long play, close to three hours including a 20-minute intermission. I enjoyed it immensely, but I have to admit I got anxious for them to wind things up after the last big fight scene.
WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through Oct. 26
WHERE: State Theater, 202 E. Fourth Ave., Olympia
TICKETS: $32, $28 seniors and military, $20 students, discounted rush tickets a half-hour prior to curtain
INFORMATION: 360-786-0151; harlequinproductions.org.