Elizabeth Williamson

But Little Touch of Harry

Review of Henry V, Hartford Stage

A production in the round is unusual in current Connecticut theaters, and it’s unusual to see a Shakespeare production as stripped-down and bare bones as the version of Henry V now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson. The choices make for an almost behind-the-scenes feel to this varied play.

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), foreground, and the cast of Henry V at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), foreground, and the cast of Henry V at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

This is the third production Williamson has directed at the theater—following Caryl Churchill’s satiric Cloud 9 and an explosive Seder by Sarah Gancher—and she tends to go for edgy. Here, as with the Churchill play, the text requires many different tonalities to succeed fully. The cast—many playing multiple roles—delivers only some of them. The main tone is a very American address to a very British play, leaving the viewer in some doubt as to what and why.

Shakespeare’s play chronicles the effort of the newly crowned Henry V, formerly the dissolute rowdy Prince Hal, to wage war on France, driven by advisors who insist he has a claim to the French crown. Here, as Archbishop of Canterbury, Felicity Jones Latta plays up the comedy of the torturous detail by which the claim is justified without necessarily convincing anyone but Henry that there is a claim. He trusts it and so, at the start, we see a king driven by a prideful decision to prove himself, particularly when the scornful Dauphin of France (Anthony Michael Lopez) sends Henry a bunch of tennis balls as a message. Henry, in France’s view, is a total lightweight, and, while we might recall recent events in which two over-wielding political leaders exchanged taunts while the fate of the world hung in the balance, the exchange doesn’t land as definitive for the action to come. Are we to see Henry as a true king in the making (the general version of the character), or misguided, spoiled, or worse?

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta), foreground, with King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush)

The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felicity Jones Latta), foreground, with King Henry (Stephen Louis Grush)

The problem lies mostly with Stephen Louis Grush’s interpretation of Henry. With his shaven head and forceful frame, we easily see him as a man of action. He speaks fast and with a diction better-suited to direct speech than iambic pentameter. His main vocal shift is irascible explosion, otherwise he rarely makes clear the emotions that guide Henry. He’s best when professing himself a soldier unable to woo properly, but that comes late. It may be that Williamson has chosen to downplay the big sentiments that are generally associated with the play, such as the rhetorical fire of the St. Crispin’s Day speech, and that choice makes Henry blend into the ensemble work on view here. The play tends to be more interesting when its titular character isn’t around.

Duke of Gloucester (Reid Williams), Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush)

Duke of Gloucester (Reid Williams), Henry V (Stephen Louis Grush)

The staging is empty of most scenic devices, except an occasional table and chair, and wide open, with many points of entry and exit. The floor of the playing space is a map showing the British Isles in relation to mainland Europe. The costuming is a mix of fatigues and fancier uniforms that recall various armies, from the Great War onward. Suffice to say, it’s an eclectic look that does little to recall British history specifically, and the same is true of accents. One character—the truculent Pistol—is played by Miles Anderson with a British accent. As Captain Fluellen of Wales, Baron Vaughn speaks more sing-songy than do the others, which I suppose distinguishes him. A French prisoner, Monsieur Le Fer (Nafeesa Monroe) speaks English as a comic French-person would, and Katherine, the princess of France (Eveyln Spahr) speaks in French and broken English with her French-speaking maid Alice (Felicity Jones Latta). The scene between Alice and Katherine, like the wooing between Henry and Katherine, comes off well, made engaging by Spahr’s skill in romantic comedy.

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), Katherine of France (Evelyn Spahr), Alice (Felicity Jones Latta)

Henry (Stephen Louis Grush), Katherine of France (Evelyn Spahr), Alice (Felicity Jones Latta)

At the heart of the play here, it seems, are the efforts to loot while at war on the part of Sir John Falstaff’s former companions, Nym (Felicity Jones Latta), Pistol (Miles Anderson), and Bardolph (Liam Craig). The description of Falstaff’s death, by Mistress Quickly (Baron Vaughn), is played for laughs with but scant pathos, and the scene in which Henry agrees to the death by hanging of one of his former cronies brings forward little of the shared past. Here, it’s easy to overlook why these three ne’er-do-wells are even part of the play, as their role in shadowing Henry’s grandiosity is rarely if ever made pointed. They are comic relief, of a sort, though Anderson’s Pistol emerges as the most dynamic character in the play. Bardolph, shorn of his oft-remarked inflamed nose and pustular visage, is good-looking enough to be mistaken for Captain Gower of England (whom Craig also plays). In a key scene Pistol argues for saving the absent Bardolph while Gower looks on. Keep your playbill handy or you may suspect that Gower is Bardolph in a different garment.

Pistol (Miles Anderson), Bardolph (Liam Craig), Nym (Felicity Jones Latta)

Pistol (Miles Anderson), Bardolph (Liam Craig), Nym (Felicity Jones Latta)

In the midst of the lackluster readings of several of the 34 characters enacted by 15 actors in this busy production is the welcome presence of Peter Francis James as the Chorus. Florid, commanding, with a sure sense of the sound and cadence—to say nothing of the vowels and consonants—of Shakespearean rhetoric, James delivers his too few speeches quite effectively. At certain points, I found myself wishing he would simply narrate the story, which would help us to follow the who’s who and what’s what of this complex and not so well-known Shakespearean plot.

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Chorus (Peter Francis James)

Disappointing and quizzical, Hartford Stage’s Henry V succeeds at times, but its energy, like that of its hero, too often seems misdirected.

 

Henry V
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Beth Goldenberg; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Matt Hubbs; Original Music: Christian Frederickson; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Yan Chen; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski

Cast: Karen Aldridge, Miles Anderson, Liam Craig, Kate Forbes, Stephen Louis Grush, Peter Francis James, Felicity Jones Latta, Mark Lawrence, Anthony Michael Lopez, Nafeesa Monroe, Jamie Rezanour, Evelyn Spahr, Haley Tyson, Baron Vaughn, Reid Williams

Hartford Stage
October 11-November 11, 2018

Pour Out Thy Wrath

Review of Seder, Hartford Stage

In 2002, the “House of Terror” museum opened in an infamous building at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, a public documentation of the tortures and murders that happened there, under the Nazis until 1944, and under the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) until the end of the 1980s. In a world premiere at Hartford Stage directed by Elizabeth Williamson, Sarah Gancher’s Seder dramatizes the changes in Hungary through the medium of a particular family claiming its Jewish identity, suppressed under the Soviets, by celebrating Passover for the first time.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Such a ritual, we might imagine, would be a way of bringing the family together and healing whatever divides remain. That’s the intention of Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), the sweet daughter in a bitter family, who invites her friend, David (Steven Rattazzi, in a subtly comic performance), to lead her, her cynical brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), their estranged sister Judit (Birgit Huppuch), and their mother Erzsike (Mia Dillon) in the meal, the prayers, the four cups of wine, and the symbolic meanings.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

As the matriarch wanting to find common ground with daughter Judit, Mia Dillon’s Erzsike commands an uneasy sympathy. The tense scenes in 2002 are coupled with flashbacks that show Erzsike as a young woman working as a secretary at 60 Andrássy. She is coerced into a sexual relationship with Attila (Jeremy Webb), one of the commanders in the HCP, who arranges her marriage with Tamás (Liam Craig), the man the children knew as their father. We need this background because one of the great divides in this family is that Judit is on the board at the House of Terror museum where her mother’s face is on “the Wall of Murderers” as one who served in the hated regime.

The play is set in a sprawling apartment with living room, dining room, kitchen, designed as open spaces with the baleful presence of the Wall of Murderers hovering visibly throughout the drama. The play opens with Erzsike coming face-to-face with her photo on the wall, and much of the play will be concerned with her coming to grips with her past. As Erzsike, Dillon turns in a finely calibrated performance. She’s anything but a sentimental woman, in 2002, and, in her youth, was the innocent she would like her family to see her as. Dillon plays both ages winningly—much as she did when playing a mature woman and an 8-year-old boy in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 at Hartford Stage, also directed by Williamson, last season.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

What comes out in Gancher’s fraught, emotionally powerful and important play, is the toll on ordinary lives of extraordinarily unpleasant political realities. The drama explodes several times, yet maintains the believable rhythm of a domestic gathering where strong words are followed by efforts at reconciliation. The humor of the situation is largely maintained by David’s well-meaning focus on the matter at hand—the Seder—and by Laci’s deadpan comments. The main events feature an entertaining collection of voices and agendas, and each cast member contributes significantly to the 2002 scenes. In the past, Webb’s Attila brandishes power in intimacy to chilling effect, while Craig’s Tamás is a dutiful performance in an underwritten role. The scene when we see the parting between husband and wife—one of the grievances Judit lays on her mother—is one of the few where the play’s pacing suffers.

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Key to the political situation is how those who seize power vilify those in power before them, a point that Erzsike has enough historical overview to see. At the heart of the human story is a vindictive battle for historical vindication that pits Judit against Erzsike, whose sins as mother and wife—in Judit’s view—share common cause with her generation’s political hypocrisy, enjoying the fall of Communism without having to own their complicity with its ruthless rule. There is much airing of grief, and Birgit Huppuch gives a thoroughly involving performance as Judit. Full of spite, anger, misery, and, finally, tears that feel fully earned, Judit works through righteous indignation and a daughter’s sense of betrayal to cathartic effect.

Probing, gripping, and touching, Seder provides a lively meal as the basis for a family drama and takes full dramatic advantage of the insight that the personal is political. Though such may not be so literally the case in most families, the question of allegiances and former complicity is very much an issue for many. The benefits and the blame of holding power go hand in hand in Sarah Gancher’s sharp play.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

 

 

Seder
By Sarah Gancher
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Script Consultant: Jocelyn Clarke; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp; Assistant Stage Manager: Merrick A. B. Williams

Cast: Liam Craig, Mia Dillon, Birgit Huppuch, Dustin Ingram, Steven Rattazzi, Julia Sirna-Frest, Jeremy Webb

Hartford Stage
October 19-November 12, 2017

Sexual Politics

Review of Cloud 9, Hartford Stage

Caryl Churchill’s wildly irreverent and comic play Cloud 9 addresses sexual politics, and how mores change with the times. It also shows how the past—here, the British past, specifically—is always being re-imagined. Act One’s lively burlesque of Victorian erotic relations in the 1870s is paralleled with a rather more naturalistic rendering set in 1979 in Act Two. The play dates from 1979, so Act Two, originally, was very contemporary indeed. The main difficulty now is that we’ve almost gotten to the point at which “the 1970s” may inspire a burlesque spirit similar to what Churchill makes of the 1870s. If played more for laughs—such as its invocation of a New Agey “goddess”—Act Two might have more bite. In any case, its effort to imagine a sort of social utopia of sexual relations and child-rearing may strike some as quaint, others as progressive—even now. Or especially now?

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Which is a way of saying that the past’s social progress can still present a challenge in times of virulent conservatism. In any case, Cloud 9 remains a challenging and amorphous play that provides equal parts entertainment and food for thought. Launched initially as Margaret Thatcher came to power, Cloud 9 may make us oddly nostalgic for the hopes of earlier eras.

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cathy (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Casting is key to the success of the production at Hartford Stage, directed by Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson, in her directorial debut. Because the cast of seven actors must play the 15 characters of both acts—in some cases cross-gender and contrary to age—and because who doubles as whom is established by Churchill, the overall effect depends upon actors who can manage the considerable disparity in roles. Here, Mark H. Dold enacts the most striking transformation, setting the tone for both acts. In Act One, he plays the repressive patriarch Clive, looking and sounding very Victorian indeed, then plays a preening little girl, Cathy, in Act Two; in both cases, Dold’s character lords it over the others. That shift is the most telling in this play of shifting orientations, and Dold carries it off splendidly.

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Front: Edward (Mia Dillon), Betty (Tom Pecinka), Joshua (William John Austin); Rear: Ellen (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold), Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act One takes us to a colonial outpost in South Africa where Clive resides with his family: demure wife Betty (Tom Pecinka), adolescent son Edward (Mia Dillon), who has a penchant for playing with dolls, baby Vickie (who is a doll), and mother-in-law Maud (Emily Gunyou Halaas); there’s also a manservant Joshua (William John Austin), who has renounced his people through his attachment to Clive; a maid, Ellen (Sarah Lemp), who is very affectionate toward Betty; Mrs. Saunders (Lemp again), a very independent widow; and a very manly explorer, Harry Bagley (Chandler Williams). The amusement is in seeing how a surface “normality” is constantly undermined by the kinds of subversive urges that, time was, would’ve been the subject of considerable repression. Comic moments, such as Ellen’s attempt to seduce Betty, and Harry misreading signals from Clive, are set against bits that are almost poignant, such as Joshua’s song at Christmas, a plaintive love note to his oppressors. Mia Dillon, a veteran actress, is quite remarkable as little Edward, and Tom Pecinka languishes quite ladylike as doleful Betty.

In Act Two, Cathy’s winsome childishness is the best feature, as the play’s treatment of the problem of parenting, as an ongoing chore without nursemaids to take up the slack, hits a contemporary note. Cathy’s mother is Lin (Sarah Lemp), a lesbian with eyes for Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), the doll grown up, we’re to imagine, who has a son we never see and whom she is attempting to raise with help from her novelist husband, Martin (Chandler Williams). Martin is a nice send-up of the "enlightened" male of the period, no less overbearing than Clive, but in a more sensitive way, trying to be supportive and to share parenting duties and the like. His hair and clothes recall aspects of the 1970s most of us would rather forget. Gunyou Halaas, in contrast, wears her retro threads quite well and portrays Victoria as a woman on the verge of change.

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Martin (Chandler Williams)

Such is also the case with Betty (Mia Dillon, now playing her own age), who has a deliberate look of Thatcher about her, but is much more liberal. She takes us into her confidence about achieving orgasm manually, fully in the spirit of Our Bodies, Our Selves. Meanwhile, Edward (Tom Pecinka) is a gardener in the local park—where all bring their children to tire themselves out—who is trying to be a “wife” to Gerry (William John Austin), a rather feckless young man who prefers to enjoy a liberated gay lifestyle.

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lin (Sarah Lemp), Victoria (Emily Gunyou Halaas), Edward (Tom Pecinka) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The aspect of Act Two that never completely jells is the effort to find some common ground for all these inter-relations. Certain moments, such as the song the entire cast sings, seem almost a parody of togetherness, though Williamson is unwilling to satirize progressiveness the way Act One easily satirizes patriarchy. And yet there’s no escaping the fact that seeing same-sex couples as boring—as couples—as hetero couples often are, while it may help support what must once have been a striking notion—that couples are much the same, regardless of what sort of pairing constitutes them—doesn’t make for intriguing theater. It doesn’t help that in Act Two only Dold is still playing against type. The other actors are in roles they might be cast for in conventional casting. Perhaps it’s time to shake-up casting a bit further.

The reappearance of certain figures from Act One in the play’s conclusion makes for a surprisingly fond return. Without being sentimental in effect, the final note arrives as a kind of détente with previous generations: while no doubt at a loss about how the world would change, they may at least be allowed the dignity of their historical situation. It helps, of course, that Dold’s Clive and Pecinka’s Betty are so charismatic they seem almost archetypal. Or is that just a way of saying that some things never change?

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Mrs. Sanders (Sarah Lemp), Clive (Mark H. Dold) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

Cloud 9
By Caryl Churchill
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design & Original Composition: Andre Pluess; Wig & Hair Design: Cookie Jordan; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli; Assistant Stage Manager: Ellen Goldberg; Casting: Jack Bowden, CSA, Binder Casting

Cast: William John Austin; Mark H. Dold; Mia Dillon; Emily Gunyou Halaas; Sarah Lemp; Tom Pecinka; Chandler Williams

Hartford Stage
February 23-March 19, 2017