O for a Muse of Venice by KCRW

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O for a Muse of Venice
TUE MAY 13, 2014
Host: Anthony Byrnes

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth has one of the great prologues – and to my mind a shout-out for the power of minimalist theater.

It begins:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

So much of the play is captured right there. Too often, this incantation is played all full of bluster: a “muse of fire” sounds pretty dramatic, after all. But if you listen or read more closely, this is a spell of a different sort – an appeal to the imagination. A few lines later:

“Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,”
or even:
“Think when we talk of horses, that you see them”

Shakespeare’s calling upon that most precious commodity in the theater: the audience’s imagination.

Pacific Resident Theatre’s production of Henry V gets the prologue and embraces its spirit to bring to life a stripped down Henry that relies on the alchemy of asking the audience to believe.

When you enter the shoebox of a theater, you’re greeted by an empty stage. Well, empty of scenery and props – save for a crown discretely hanging from a nail on the wall. The space is filled with two folding rehearsal tables and the actors warming up while a Clash song plays in the background.

Now if you’ve seen more than a little theater you’ll be familiar with this ‘we’re going to expose everything’ cliché. Like the Prologue, too often it’s played ‘at’ rather than embodied. Usually, you see a group of actors ‘performing’ warming up but here I bought it. More than that, the actors almost instantly capture the “band of brothers” feeling. This production is beautifully and quirkily cast, so from the get go this is an ensemble you want to meet.

Young Henry, when we meet him, looks like he could have stumbled in off Venice Boulevard: long Dickie shorts, a hoodie, and a cut-off “Slayer” t-shirt.

Once the action starts, it sticks to its minimalist roots. Director Guillermo Cienfuegos, who in another guise delivers that prologue, brings the world to life using just the actors’ bodies and some banging of those folding tables.

Shakespeare, ultimately, comes down to the words and Henry the Fifth often comes down to the speeches: as the eager teenager behind me asked his dad, “Is the speech in this act or the next.” Here the production stumbles a bit. You can sometimes feel Shakespeare’s thoughts continue on a line or two longer than the actors’. Or more often, the actors’ emotion overcomes the character’s intention and things become a bit muddled.

But it’s hard to find fault with such an approachable cast. It’s easy to see why they’ve been extended, and if the wooing scene between Henry and Kate doesn’t make you fall in love with this production, I don’t know what will.

Henry V plays at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through June 8.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes with one intermission.

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