A Bard Day's Night

Henry V and The Tempest storm through Boulder.

Actors who portray Shakespearean villains, heroes or clowns are sometimes tempted to overinflate the dialogue for epic effect or add tiny mannerisms to humanize larger-than-life characters. But neither approach, by itself, does dramatic justice to men and women who are part invention, part human, and whose needs, wants and desires are expressed in language that's both conversational and high-flown.

The challenges of mixing everyday behavior with lyrical speech are brought home in a pair of productions being presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Whether they're leaping over time and space on the battlefields of France or cooking up mythical moments on Prospero's magical island, the actors do their best to bridge each play's fantasy-reality gap -- a goal that a couple of actors manage to achieve. Too often, though, men of eloquent feeling merely sputter and shout, intriguing heroines behave like dizzy beauty queens and the Bard's beloved clowns verbally hack and bludgeon where they should lightly thrust and parry. And while both shows radiate with promise, neither realizes its full potential.

Actor Michael Christian Huftile, who portrays the title character in Henry V, displays more insight and a greater command of technique than he did when playing the princely version of the king in both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV for the CSF last season. The appealing performer strides about the Mary Rippon Theater's outdoor stage with conviction, launching into Henry's famous speeches with admirable gusto. He also proves a warrior capable of modest introspection, constantly checking his fierce impulse to lead with a measure of ingratiating self-doubt. And Huftile's ability to toss off humorous comments and observations serves him well in the final wooing scene with his French bride-to-be.

Michael Huftile and Neil Hopkins in Henry V.
Michael Huftile and Neil Hopkins in Henry V.
Michael Huftile and Neil Hopkins in Henry V.
Michael Huftile and Neil Hopkins in Henry V.

Details

Through August 18

303-492-0554

coloradoshakes.org

Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, CU-Boulder

However, Huftile frequently plays Henry more like a thug with a chip on his shoulder than a leader of tremendous, if occasionally strained, vision. When Henry is presented with the French king's insulting gift of tennis balls, for example, Huftile grits his teeth and grumbles, "We hope to make the sender blush at it." Rather than show us a man who flexes his muscles before embarking on a carefully conceived show of force, Huftile reveals a petulant boy-king bent on teaching his rival a schoolyard-style lesson. Later, when Huftile leads his soldiers into battle, he shouts the thrilling, "Once more unto the breach" speech as if he were more angry with his compatriots than desperately in need of their valor.

Part of the problem is that director James M. Symons emphasizes the play's down-to-earth aspects at the expense of its glorious heroics. Throughout, it seems as though Symons wants to demonstrate what a regular, ordinary guy Henry is instead of showing us someone who, flawed though he might be, rises head and shoulders above the crowd to a place of foreordained honor. John F. Kennedy, the man who's most often cited as Henry's contemporary equivalent, didn't always behave like the saint that some have made him out to be. But any actor who portrays JFK must embody the qualities that separate him from the rest of the human race as well as those that knock him down a peg or two. Likewise with England's most lionized monarch.

Unfortunately, that rarely happens here. Henry's gripping Saint Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") is broken up with an overabundance of cloying handshakes and generalized emoting. Symons also di-rects Huftile to speak whole passages of his great campfire monologue ("Upon the King!") to his cloak instead of addressing his concerns directly to the audience, as almost always should occur with Shakespeare's monologues.

Muttering at length to a cloak makes the great Plantagenet -- who speaks in magnificently clear verse -- sound a bit daft instead of prone to cosmic wonder on the eve of the battle of his life. And his reaction to the murder of a young stable boy -- which spurs Henry to slaughter the French in an act of all-out vengeance -- is undercut by the director's decision to depict the boy's demise on stage rather than, as scripted, conveying its horror through Henry's volcanic response. Overall, there's not much sense of the enormity of Henry's victory (much less its absolute necessity), nor of the magnitude of loss that lies on the other side of the blood-soaked battlefield.

That said, Symons and company infuse the near-three-hour proceedings with a hearty appreciation for the colorful types who linger on the drama's perimeter. John Tessmer brings a wealth of comic sympathy to the role of Pistol, one of Henry's former drinking buddies, as does Timothy Carter, who plays the obliquely communicative French herald, Montjoy. Chan Casey is mostly all accent as the phlegmatic Welshman, Fluellen, but he lends the part a lovable feistiness that's lacking elsewhere. Stalwart character actor Terry Burnsed makes a fine pygmy French king, Eric Lawrence and Matthew C. Dente do a capable job playing several roles on both sides of the action, and Laiona Weaver is a lusty presence as Mistress Quickly. And the many battle scenes convey wartime's random horrors and short-lived victories.

When all is said and done, though, it seems a shame that director Symons couldn't better distinguish between the commonalties that bind monarch and subject and that which is merely commonplace.

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