Every time I attend one of Thaddeus Phillips's one-man shows, more of my friends ask to accompany me. Phillips is a genuine phenomenon, and his performances delight and amaze. He's an experimental-theater artist who works with words, puppets, objects, sound, video, toys, light and shadow to create entirely original worlds. He's clever and deep, but never pretentious. He's also an excellent actor who can create an interesting character with only a small gesture or a slight change in intonation. Sometimes he tap-dances. In Lost Soles, he told the sweet, funny story of a tapper's dance education and his involuntary sojourn in Cuba. The Earth's Sharp Edge -- the only one of Phillips's pieces I've seen that featured other actors -- explored airport security, Middle Eastern culture and politics, and the plane hijackings of Palestinian freedom fighter Leila Khaled. Phillips also mounted an evening called Shakespeare's Storms, during which he presented King Lear and The Tempest all by himself. Lear's wicked daughters were represented by a cigarette holder and a high-heeled shoe; Cordelia was a plastic flower. The Tempest featured a kiddie pool full of water.
Now Phillips has returned to Shakespeare. In Henry 5 From Times Square, he plays a New York street vendor whose stand is bursting with patriotic paraphernalia: T-shirts, war books, the famed playing cards bearing the faces of Saddam Hussein and his associates. The stand is flanked by two video screens sometimes showing scenes from the war film Patton, sometimes rolling a news trailer screaming words like terrorism, Pyongyang, nuclear, risk, suicide.
In Shakespeare's Henry V, the King has renounced the drunkenness and debauchery of his youth and is looking for a way to prove himself to his people. He is persuaded by a pair of clerics to go to war with France. They use arcane arguments about female succession and the Law Salique that are almost incomprehensible to modern audiences, and Phillips wisely plays this scene fast and for laughs. Shakespeare's play supports varying interpretations. Henry can be a cruel ruler or a heroic figure. He has glorious speeches urging his men into battle ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more..." and "This day is called the Feast of Crispian"), but he also has darker moments. Laurence Olivier directed and starred in a film of Henry V in 1943 that was a brilliant piece of wartime propaganda. Astride his white horse, Olivier seemed to embody the spirit of England herself. When Kenneth Branagh took over Henry's scepter for his 1989 film, he placed the stresses differently. He made the battles muddy, bloody and terrible. He retained speeches Olivier had cut, including Henry's threat to the governor of Harfleur that if the town did not surrender, he would see "the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand/Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters/ Your fathers taken by the silver beards/And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls/Your naked infants spitted upon pikes..."
Phillips takes things further in this direction. Although his Henry 5 retains some of the actor's usual humor and all of his usual ingenuity, it functions primarily as agitprop, focusing on the dangers of jingoistic nationalism and the futility of war. It is louder, angrier and more assaultive than his other theater pieces. The program states that director Tatiana Mallarino witnessed the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, in which some 300 civilians were killed.
Some of the play's most famous speeches are tossed off or mangled. I suppose Phillips is deliberately debunking their power and eloquence, but it felt dangerously like indifference to the text. His performance of King Lear, eccentric as it was, had moments that genuinely illuminated the play. But this production doesn't illuminate Henry V; it uses it to make a point. In fact, Patton's filmed speeches are given a more uninterrupted and straightforward hearing than Shakespeare's monologues.
There's nothing wrong with using Shakespeare like this, but it feels as if Phillips has deserted detail and subtlety for a narrower, less satisfying statement.
Still, Henry 5 From Times Square is well worth seeing. The piece is inventive. It contains moments of humor and some moving scenes -- as when General George Patton urges his men to be ruthless in battle while Phillips quietly sets up row after row of toy soldiers on a table. Later, these soldiers will appear to move, and still later, they'll topple onto each other in a sad dance of death.
As this production suggests, those who have the power to make war would do well to ponder Shakespeare's words: "If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?"
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