Once More Onto the Beach

A visit to (dull) Camp Shakespeare

Sometimes going to the theater feels like an exercise in associative memory. For instance, California Shakespeare Festival's unspeakably dull production of Henry V (directed by James Bundy at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda) has a set (designed by J.B. Wilson) whose rustic stick construction recalls generic lazy, hazy days of summer and turns the stage into a cross between Camp Shakespeare and Frontierland.

The wail of bagpipes and roll of drums (composer Gino Robair is credited, along with music director Victor Avdienko) intrude temporarily to dissolve that slightly disconcerting impression as the players gather in minimal black and white for the recitation of one of Shakespeare's most famous opening speeches: "Oh, for a muse of fire, that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention ...." For a brief but promising moment, it appears that we are far from the realm of the ordinary, thanks to the casting of Terri McMahon (who does such a smashing job as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which will resume for a week starting July 23) in the traditionally male role of the Chorus.

As the scene changes to Henry's court and the action gets under way, intrigue and complication are boldly hinted at: In their expository introduction to this simple (for Shakespeare) story of a hero king -- the reformed Prince Hal from the two Henry IVs -- the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely (Robert Shampain and Bruce Ladd, respectively) display a tantalizing degree of conspiratorial slyness as they plot the best way to draw this king into war with France. It seems as though director Bundy is adding a layer of complexity to this rah-rah play about how the English army wins a war despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered.

Then the king enters, and that hope is quashed permanently. As played by Martin Kildare, Henry is a cheerful, irrepressibly outgoing guy; a big, handsome blond with a simple view of life, more comfortable in a Malibu lifeguard's tank top than in the tinfoil armor (costumes by Jack Taggart) provided him as the English monarch.

And, for the remainder of the three hours, nothing further occurs to ruffle our expectations or to keep boredom at bay. Henry V is a difficult play because it reads so straightforwardly. A truncated chronicle of the English wars to acquire France, the action focuses on Henry and his new status as monarch.

While he glows and flourishes, catching and punishing villainous treason on the one hand, showing mercy and comradeship with his soldiers on the other, his former cohorts stumble into ruin. Falstaff, that good-natured mountain of a wine-consuming wastrel, dies upstairs (and pointedly offstage -- Shakespeare is not about to take the risk of letting this popular clown divert focus) in the tavern owned by Mistress Quickly (Domenique Lozano) and her new husband, Pistol (played with Nicolas Cage-like gusto by Robert Shampain). Pistol and his pals, Bardolph (Bob Greene) and Nym (Mark Phillips), grudgingly take up arms and go to France, but are unable to resist the temptations of corruption. The latter two wind up swinging from the gallows for petty theft.

It's Henry who's meant to hold center stage; and even though Shakespeare-the-poet seems to fall into the trap of oversimplifying the king's heroic status (with such stirring speeches as the memorable rally to battle on St. Crispin's Day), Shakespeare-the-playwright is fully aware of the potential for conflict. He causes Henry to question his territorial rights in France several times. Then, once the English are committed to battle, the playwright disguises Henry and dispatches him to mingle with ordinary soldiers, earnestly trying to fathom the fact that he is about to send many of them to their deaths.

In Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of the play, the chaos and misery of war shifts the hearty macho adventure into near tragedy: At the height of the battle, the exhausted English forces are greeted by the French emissary. Convinced that he has come for their surrender, Henry inquires as to who has won the day. His astonishment at learning that he has prevailed is only one of many spectacularly moving moments in the film.

No such rewards await the audience in Orinda. In spite of sturdy performances by supporting players -- most notably Gary S. Martinez as Capt. Fluellen and Aaron Davidman as the French Duke of Bourbon -- there is not the slightest degree of dramatic tension to this Henry. There are occasional pleasures, such as the stirring poetry with which McMahon as Chorus shapes the action. Or the scene in which Katherine, the French princess (charmingly rendered by Rebecca Clark), certain to be married off to the victorious English monarch, quickly tries to learn the rudiments of English from her none-too-fluent lady-in-waiting (Lozano).

But what Shakespeare provides as an upbeat, hopeful ending is merely anticlimactic, and lightly diverting scenes of Henry wooing and marrying Katherine seem tacked on. There is no shift in tone here, indeed no need at all for comic relief, since nothing that has gone before has been in the least suspenseful.

Which brings up the associative memory thing again. If we force ourselves, most of us can recall being herded onto school buses and driven for hours to a bona fide Shakespearean theater where we were "introduced" to the Bard, via stilted productions notable for their moth-eaten costumes and posturing actors. Only the good fortune (and usually happy accident) of venturing into the innovative territory of directors such as Joseph Papp could possibly dispel the impression that classical theater is hopelessly dull.

Director Bundy has certainly not shied away from inventive casting (including the interesting choice of Amy Frazier as the French dauphin). But he seems to have fallen all over himself to avoid conflict, making this production of Henry V no more compelling than, say, a game of Capture the Flag at Camp Shakespeare.

Henry V runs through Aug. 3 at the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, 100 Gateway at Highway 24, Orinda; call (510) 548-9666.

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