Wall Street Journal - ‘Henry V’ Review: The King’s Not Dead, Long Live the King!

‘Henry V’ Review: The King’s Not Dead, Long Live the King!

An extraordinarily fine small-scale production of Shakespeare’s play proves that it’s still worth performing frequently staged classics

"John P. Keller, who is both grippingly incisive as young Henry and preposterously foppish as the Dauphin."

By Terry Teachout

The Wall Street Journal

Feb. 26, 2015 4:32 p.m. ET

Orlando, Fla.

Henry V

John P. Keller in 'Henry V' at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Tony Firriolo  

John P. Keller in 'Henry V' at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Tony Firriolo
 

Orlando Shakespeare Theater
Lowndes Shakespeare Center,
812 E. Rollins St., Orlando, Fla. ($20-$45), 407-447-1700
Goldman Theater,
Closes March 22

Orlando Shakespeare Theatre is a puzzlement, a first-class drama company whose stature is too often obscured by unadventurous programming. It’s only because I already knew how good Orlando Shakespeare is that I went out of my way to see its production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Jim Helsinger’s “Henry V” poses a like problem: Why bother with yet another revival of a classic that gets done so very often? The answer is that this is an extraordinarily fine small-scale production of a supremely great history play, performed on an open stage in a 118-seat theater by six men and two women, all of them outstanding. Everyone in the cast plays double or triple roles, even John P. Keller, who is both grippingly incisive as young Henry and preposterously foppish as the Dauphin. Mr. Helsinger’s staging is propelled by a strong comic energy that is never allowed to undercut the high seriousness of the proceedings. You’ll laugh—plenty—but not at the heroism that is Shakespeare’s point, and the clamorous battle scene (ingeniously lighted by Eric T. Haugen) is spectacular in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible in so intimate a setting.

BWW Review: Orlando Shakespeare Goes unto the Breach with Masterful HENRY V

As both King Henry and the French Dauphin, Keller is incredibly compelling. He possesses the dramatic ability to make 400-year-old dialogue seem fresh and modern, while also imbuing Harry with the charisma necessary to convince soldiers to run head first towards almost certain death.
For anyone familiar with HENRY V, there is no doubt that the iconic St. Crispin's Day Speech is one of Shakespeare's most stirring monologues; and Keller does not fail to deliver. His rousing version brought to life the contagious passion and conviction that the king imparts onto his men. Though the speech is short, the goosebumps it gave me lasted long into the next scene.

One of the great benefits of having a professional Shakespeare company in town is that they are able to invest in productions of some of the Bard's works that don't often get produced at traditional theatres. While Orlando Shakespeare certainly produces great plays not found in the First Folio, the fact that they are able to bring performances of shows like TITUS ANDRONICUS, THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, and PERICLES to the stage is a tremendous boon for Central Florida theatre fans. Productions of HAMLET, ROMEO AND JULIET, the Scottish Play, and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM will never go out of style, but it is truly special when you are able to attend an artistically satisfying production of one of Shakespeare's lesser seen works; like the masterful HENRY V, running through March 22nd at Orlando Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare's most popular Histories, HENRY V, tells the story of England's young King Henry, as he attempts to claim the throne of France, through some rather complicated lineal logic. The King leads his undermanned army across the English Channel to take on the mighty French forces. One of this show's strengths is that it so completely tells the story of the incursion. Of course we see how the campaign impacts Harry and the nobility, but we also see the effects on the common English soldiers in service of their king, as well as how the French royalty deal with the invasion.

What is remarkable about this production is that a company of just eight actors covers over 40 roles; flawlessly bouncing between costumes and accents. While at times that means that the proceedings have a certain Monty Python feel to them, the precision of the cast and direction is enthralling. Despite being a History Play, Shakespeare takes ample opportunity to add humor to the show, and director Jim Helsinger takes full advantage of that fact. Though the portrayals of the French seem to lean a little too heavily on modern stereotypes, and the anachronistic gimmick used to get through some tedious exposition is a little too over-the-top, the cast perfectly balances the seriousness of battle with the more light-hearted moments. John P. Keller as Harry and Sarah Caroline Billings as French Princess Katherine also bring a sweet, unexpected romance to the second act.

As both King Henry and the French Dauphin, Keller is incredibly compelling. He possesses the dramatic ability to make 400-year-old dialogue seem fresh and modern, while also imbuing Harry with the charisma necessary to convince soldiers to run head first towards almost certain death.

For anyone familiar with HENRY V, there is no doubt that the iconic St. Crispin's Day Speech is one of Shakespeare's most stirring monologues; and Keller does not fail to deliver. His rousing version brought to life the contagious passion and conviction that the king imparts onto his men. Though the speech is short, the goosebumps it gave me lasted long into the next scene.

The ensemble nature of this production makes it difficult to single out one actor from the cast, as they all worked incredibly well as one cohesive unit. Kate Ingram was especially regal as the French King. Richard B. Watson opened the show with a humorous take on the play's framing device, and carried that levity throughout the show as Welsh soldier Fluellen. Billings seamlessly floats from being a pageboy to a herald to Katherine, adding a definitive humanity to each. In addition, Brad DePlancheStephen Paul Johnson, Geoffrey Kent, and Stephen Lima bring heart, humor, and strength to this thoroughly professional ensemble.

As equally impressive as the work the cast does on the stage, is the stage itself. Bob Phillips' gorgeous all wood stage brings to mind the original Globe. The scenic design makes full use of the limited space by incorporating a number of clever doors, which also allow Lighting Designer Eric T. Haugen Video and Video/Projection Designer Andrew Mulkey additional canvases on which to work. Also, Britt Sandusky's sound design and Lisa Zinni's costume design add subtle, but invaluable texture to the production.

One final touch that cemented the uniquely creative approach to the show was the theatrical take on the fight scenes, directed by Kent. While I won't spoil the surprise that Kent and Helsinger created for the decisive Battle of Agincourt, I will say that it is phenomenally evocative, and perfectly conveys the ebbs and flows of battle. The only drawback to this scene is that I wish there was more of it.

Whether or not you are a Shakespearean historian, this is a theatrical event that you will not want to miss. If nothing else, hearing an actor as talented as Keller deliver the words, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers," is reason enough to see Orlando Shakespeare's production of HENRY V. To purchase your tickets, visit Orlando Shakes' website or call 407-447-1700. The show runs through March 22nd.

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Wall Street Journal - Darkly Dickensian Drama

 

By

TERRY TEACHOUT

 

The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Parts I and II

Before "Angels in America," there was "The Life & Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby." The Royal Shakespeare Company's 8 1/2-hour-long stage version of Charles Dickens's 1839 novel, directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, transferred to Broadway from London's West End in 1981, snapped up a best-play Tony and created in a single stroke the modern vogue for the marathon multipart shows that have come to be known as "event theater."

Not surprisingly, revivals of "Nicholas Nickleby," which calls for 39 actors, are rare. Accordingly, David Edgar, who wrote the script, prepared an abridged version in 2006 that has since been mounted three times on this side of the Atlantic. Now Orlando Shakespeare Theatre has taken it on, with results that are both spectacular and satisfying. I didn't see the original production, which by all accounts was a miracle of creative stagecraft, but it's hard to imagine that it was more moving—or fun—than Orlando Shakespeare's 6 1/2-hour version, directed by Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess, whose 27 actors (who play 150-odd characters) are deployed with infinite resourcefulness.

Since "Nicholas Nickleby" is one of Dickens's most popular novels, I'll eschew a detailed synopsis of the labyrinthine plot, in which the title character ( John P. Keller), plunged into poverty by the death of his father and left there by the callousness of Ralph Nickleby ( Greg Thornton), his rich uncle, embarks on a series of picaresque exploits that bring him—eventually—comfort and joy. What we have here is, in short, the basic Dickens myth, in which a plucky young man pulls himself out of London's lower depths by sheer force of will to become a gentleman of means.

What makes it work, here as always, is the way in which Dickens, the great Victorian preacher of the social gospel, tells his tale with a mixture of warm humor and dark realism, and part of what makes it so powerful onstage is that Mr. Edgar doesn't stint on the darkness. Never are you allowed to forget that 19th-century England is full of desperately poor people, or that Nicholas and Kate ( Allison McLemore), his gentle but determined sister, could easily vanish into their faceless ranks.

Yes, the results are melodramatic in the extreme, and the characters, again as always, are one-dimensional. For Dickens, characterization was caricature: Nicholas is the Good Guy, Ralph the Bad Guy, and everybody else is an elaborately drawn cartoon. That's what makes his novels so hard for many contemporary readers to get through—and what makes them so effective when adapted for the stage or the screen. Instead of wading through page-long thickets of broad-brush description, you watch talented actors portraying the characters, which frees you to focus on the plot and dialogue.

That's where Orlando Shakespeare's "Nicholas Nickleby" shines most brightly: The cast is consistently superior, starting with Mr. Thornton, who plays Ralph as a hawk-faced, flint-hearted monster of self-will who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, has renounced human kindness. "All love is cant and vanity," he rasps, and you know at once that the fires of hell await him. What is most impressive about Mr. Thornton's performance, though, is that it isn't a caricature: You believe in its reality, which makes Ralph's decision to live without love even more horrifying.

Mr. Keller and Ms. McLemore acquit themselves splendidly in their less grateful roles, though it's in the nature of the show that the supporting players often make stronger impressions. Even the servants are boldly characterized in this production, while the villains, most particularly Wackford Squeers ( Richard B. Watson), the odious schoolmaster, are as memorable as well-carved gargoyles. As for Stephen James Anthony, who plays Smike, the crippled "drudge boy" who attaches himself to Nicholas, he is as good as it's possible to be. No matter how unsentimental you think you are, you'll be touched by the way in which Mr. Anthony brings his pitiful plight to believable life.

To keep so complex an enterprise in motion is a formidable feat of directorial engineering, but Messrs. Helsinger and Niess are fully equal to the task, and performing the show on a Shakespearean-style open thrust stage helps to keep the energy level high throughout. So does Bert Scott's Broadway-quality set, which makes ingenious use of a turntable, a trap door and multiple playing levels. Jack A. Smith'speriod costumes are just right…but why go on? Everything about this production is right—including the timing. At a moment when long-term unemployment in America is alarmingly high, surely nothing could be more timely. So if you need respite from the servant porn of "Downton Abbey," come to Florida and plunge yourself into the ever-relevant adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and his friends and enemies.

—Mr. Teachout, the Journal's drama critic, is the author of "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington" and "Satchmo at the Waldorf." Write to him at tteachout@wsj.com.

BWW Reviews: OST's Mega-Spectacle THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (Part 1)

 

"John P. Keller is a classical theater savant with a formidable ability, not only, to perform extremely long pieces, but speed recite lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It is simply astonishing to watch this man work. Keller's Nickleby is compassionate and serves as the self-aware narrator who is quick to point out the absurdity of a situation."

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👤by Kimberly Moy

Orlando Shakspeare's 25th Anniversary promised to be its biggest season yet. It's finally time to see what all the buzz is about. Totaling 6.5 hours, the hyped mega-spectacle THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY lives up to its name. Make no mistake, it's a big production, but with the talented cast it does not feel like you're watching a lifetime. 

Given the scope of THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY, the production could have been too big for Orlando. But like a lot of things in Orlando we go all out, grabbing the best and using many local ties to create something magical. Of course there was the potential for the show to drag, but in reality it is quite the opposite. OST got this production right.

Part I begins with the death of Nicholas's father. Nicholas's mother and sister, Kate, move to London to seek the aid of Uncle Ralph. Without knowing the story there are several archetypal Dickens characters that will seem familiar. Ralph Nickleby may as well be Mr. Scrooge with his obsession for money and uncaring for the lives of others. Rather than instantly providing for the grieving trio, he finds work for the Nickleby children at pitiful wages. Nicholas is sent to work as a teacher for schoolmaster, Mr. Squeers, and Kate sent to work for Madame Mantalini in her dress shop.

At Mr. Squeers's Boy's School, Nicholas quickly realizes that it is not the high institution as described in the original advertisement. He watches as Squeers teaches the boys through abuse and intimidation. Nicholas also encounters the grotesque Fanny Squeers who falls in love with him, but the feel is not mutual. Nicholas meets Smike, who is a Tiny Tim-like character mixed with Quasimoto, which gives Nicholas purpose to remain at the school. Smike attempts to run away, but is caught and beaten by Squeers. Nicholas stands up to Squeers, beats him and runs away. Much happens in between, but eventually Nicholas and Smike end up in a performing troupe. Part I ends with a version of ROMEO AND JULIET that only Orlando Shakes can stash inside of an epic.

The show balances serious topics like child abuse and class differentials with theater humor. It even does well to poke fun at the production itself. It seems the whole theater is moving at times, with actors running throughout the walkways. The set is a two-story structure that is well functioning with a lot of moving parts. There is a LES MIS-esque feel from the set.

Speaking of actors running, there are 215 costumes used in this production and 27 actors to fill them. Earlier OST's costume stitcher, Rachel Dombi gave us a behind the scenes look of what it took to put it all together. A few actors exit in one location and enter in the next scene wearing a completely different costume and playing a different character. It is amazing how they keep it straight. To fill all the roles OST turned to TheatreUCF. The Orlando Shakespeare Company actors are joined by students and faculty from UCF's Theater Program, making this truly a hometown production.

Under the direction of Jim Helsinger and Christopher Niess, the massive production does not miss a beat. Even more amazing is the fact that Part I and Part II run together, sometimes both parts in one day. That means these actors are performing two different shows during the week and some playing more than 10 characters.

John P. Keller is a classical theater savant with a formidable ability, not only, to perform extremely long pieces, but speed recite lines from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It is simply astonishing to watch this man work. Keller's Nickleby is compassionate and serves as the self-aware narrator who is quick to point out the absurdity of a situation.

Greg Thornton as Ralph Nickleby teeters between a character of great depth and wretched old man. There are moments of regret that are quickly brushed away by Nickleby's self-discipline. If he is a true Dickens character, Ralph may not be completely doomed.

Smike is a depressing character, but whose survival is deeply moving. Stephen James Anthony does a great job of showing Smike's physical and mental disabilities. At the same time, he's so genuine that you cannot help, but want the best for this character.

Stay tuned next week for my review of the ladies of NICKLEBY and Part II.

Part I and Part II of THE LIFE & ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY run in rotation at Orlando Shakespeare Theater now until March 9, 2014. I recommend seeing both parts within one week. The run time for Part I is about 3 hours, while Part 2 clocks in at about 3.5 hours, so be sure to eat beforehand. Come early to enjoy pre-show chats with the cast. For tickets and more information visit www.orlandoshakes.org

Photo Credit: Landon St. Gordon

BWW Reviews: Sinking Teeth into DRACULA: THE JOURNAL OF JONATHAN HARKER at Orlando Shakes

 

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👤by Kimberly Moy

It is no wonder that vampires are so popular, but there are no sparkles in Orlando Shakes' newest production of DRACULA: THE JOURNAL OF JONATHAN HARKER. This is the quintessential October production and its star John P. Keller is the perfect storyteller. Original to Orlando, DRACULA: THE JOURNAL OF JONATHAN HARKER was written by Orlando Shakes Artistic Director, Jim Helsinger and is possibly the most creative retelling of the classic tale. 

The story of Dracula is told through Jonathan Harker years after the event in the form of a day-by-day account. An inquiring Mr. Stoker wanted to read Harker's journal to obtain details of his experience. Harker originally was sent to Castle Dracula to arrange the legal matters for the Count to purchase a home close to London. During his time, Harker kept a travel journal to track his daily events. Each entry is recounted to the audience in a dramatic fashion that takes the audience through Harker's experience from beginning to end. The tone changes from an exciting adventure to a torturous life-or-death experience. The second act follows Dracula to London, where Harker, his wife Mina, and a cast of other characters including Dr. Van Helsing must stop him.

While many other adaptations give the Count a dark attractive sexiness; here, Dracula is the antagonist and spawn from pure evil. Jim Helsinger stuck very close to the original Bram Stoker book, but took the perspective of Harker.

John Keller is a tour-de-force carrying the entire production solo. Keller shows his range of acting as he portrays all of the characters using five or more speaking accents. His accents range from the proper English-man Jonathan Harker to dark husky Dracula, to a Matthew McConaughey-esque version of Quincey Morris. As Harker, Keller plays him as a refined English-man with almost a sense of naive about Dracula's intentions. As the story progresses, his Harker becomes desperate, angry, protective, and brave.

Keller ensures that his Dracula is dark and cunning. His eyes pierce the audience as he stands center stage threatening Harker. The portrayal of Dracula comes not just from Keller's vocal inflection, but his entire body. It is very clear, which character he is playing even when the pair are conversing together. In what is one of the best scenes of dialogue, Keller transforms himself to the paranoid lunatic Renfield. There is a desperate air to Renfield who is constantly bridging the gap from lucid to insanity. Keller's breadth of interpretation does not make the show feel like a monologue, or even a long journal entry, but rather an event that really happen. 

The set has amazing detail equipped with double doors and antique-looking set pieces. Yet by setting the scene and changing the lighting the set seemingly transforms from dank attic to looming castle. Keller uses the set so adeptly to tell the stories, sometimes swinging from the rafters or walking through trap doors. It is exhausting just watching him work. Earlier, I interviewed John about his experience with the show. Check it out here.

The lighting and sound design is something to be applauded. The team uses complete darkness to heighten the audience's senses. Audio cues from speakers surrounding the audience send chills down the spine every time a wolf howls or a thunder cracks. The shadow play is eerie yet so well done, transforming Keller from Harker to the hunched over Dracula with just a mere popping of his shirt collar and stepping toward the light.

If you are a horror story fan or love theater that chills you to the core, this production is not to be missed. Directed by Michael Carleton, DRACULA: THE JOURNAL OF JONATHAN HARKER runs until November 10 at Orlando Shakes. For tickets and more information visit: http://orlandoshakes.org.

Photo credit: Landon St. Gordon