Quintessence’s HENRY V is Both Moving and Educational

by John Van Heest

Ken Sandberg (Gloucester), Josh Carpenter (Henry V), Bernard Bygott (Exeter), and Chris Davis (Bedford) in Quintessence Theatre Group's HENRY V. (Photo by Elan Gepner)

Shakespeare’s history plays may never have the same general celebrity as say Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, but with Quintessence’s HENRY V now playing at the Sedgwick Theater in Mt. Airy, audiences will delight to discover a well performed tale of honor, bravery, politics, and self discovery.

Shakespeare’s eleven history plays paint a vivid picture of a time in English history marred by civil unrest and recurrent grabs for the throne between the houses of York and Lancaster. HENRY V is the sixth play in this epic chronology that details a period of time when English military campaigns were taken abroad to France and the newly enthroned King Henry V (affectionately known as Prince Hal in preceding plays) tries to unite England against all odds. In the earlier plays in the ‘Henriad,’ Prince Hal is, for lack of a better word, a complete slack off. Now, in HENRY V, we see Hal a little older, a lot wiser, and fully aware of his familial obligations as the King of England. He’s got something to prove and he’ll prove it come hell or high water.

When it comes to pure, text-driven Shakespearean staging, Quintessence does so much right. The stage is bare and in-the-round, and as a result, the success of the show is dependent on the command and delivery of the language by the actors. For Quintessence’s HENRY V, the language is effective and the movement, like a well choreographed dance, is precise and meaningful. Of course, this couldn’t have been done without a beautifully chosen dramatis personae.

Quintessence has employed an all male cast for Henry V – yet another nod to Shakespeare’s day. Leading the cast in the role of Henry is Josh Carpenter, a relative newcomer to Philadelphia stages. Dashing as he is commanding, Carpenter plays the young king with intense vigor and dedicated passion. While Henry fights an uncertain war in France, he is also battling with his own, inner struggles. Carpenter does a splendid job of navigating the uncertain waters of self-realization and the even more uncertain perils of foreign war. As a suitor of Princess Katherine (elegantly played by Andrew Betz), Carpenter applies the same ferociousness as he does a soldier in the Battle of Agincourt and in the end, you really forget about Hal, the disobedient youth, and witness the making of a splendid king.

Along with Carpenter and Betz, a delightful surprise came from actor Sean Close. Through his dead-on contrapposto and eye rolls, Close really captures the maddening arrogance of Monjoy, the French Messenger (And you really can’t have arrogant French characters without the 18th century French garb designed by Jane Casanave). What is most surprising about Close is that HENRY is his first Shakespeare production. On top of that, this is his first professional production, ever. I look forward to seeing him in much more.

Director Alex Burns really knows how to turn a Shakespeare history play into something that is enjoyable for all audiences. You will learn a little bit about English history which really isn’t a bad thing because along the way, you connect with great characters performed by this impressive cast. For 2010/2011, Quintessence has a great season of Plato, Moliere, and Wilde. It is definitely worth the trip to the historic Sedgwick Theater on Germantown Avenue to see a show by Quintessence Theatre Group.

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Alexander Burns
September 22 – Oct 17, 2010

Quintessence Theatre Group
Sedgwick Theatre
7137 Germantown Ave
Philadelphia (Mt. Airy), PA

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