HOT TAKE: Occupy Verona's OCCUPY HARRY
|Jesenia Pineda as King Harry in Occupy Harry. Photo courtesy of Barrie Raik.|
For the past several years, Occupy Verona has presented guerilla-style, outdoor performances of Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. This year, the company returned with Occupy Harry, a free, outdoor, genderbent view of Shakespeare's Henry V, featuring a largely diverse and female-heavy cast.
One of Shakespeare's most beloved history plays, the role of Henry V would have been originated by the Bard's leading man, Richard Burbage, who also would have originated such roles as Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear. Considered the best actor of his age, capable of handling meaty soliloquies, Burbage would have dealt as deftly with the Crispin's Day speech, or "Upon the king" as he would have delivered "To be or not to be."
While the role of King Henry in Henry V is a rich role to play (having been inhabited famously by some of our leading Shakespeareans, including on film Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branaugh, and Tom Hiddleston in The Hollow Crown series), the play itself is a loose collection of scenes, held together by a metatheatrical Prologue ("O, for a Muse of fire!") who moves the audience about in space and time.
Curiously, for a play that's entirely about the English invasion of France, the play doesn't call for any actual warfare. However, many productions do include plenty of sturm und drang to give the sense of the battlefield. Increasingly, too, many productions have been exploring female Henries, such as Hamlet Isn't Dead's Henry V, featuring the talented Megan Greener.
So how did Occupy Harry fare? Let's take a look!
Outdoor theatre is difficult at the best of times, subject to everything from the elements, to tourists walking through the stage, to just speaking loud enough while maintaining a sense of acting simultaneously. Occupy Verona's cast, under the direction of founder Joe Raik, was clearly up to the challenge, throwing themselves with gusto into the show, while still finding moments of characterization and humor.
Particular stand-outs include Laurel Andersen, doubling the French Princess Katharine with the Chorus. With clarity, precision, and joie de vivre, Andersen's presence was always welcome on the stage, deftly making a full character out of various herald and French roles to create a princess active in her own kingdom, narrating the events of the play as she experienced them.
Regina Renee Russell as Exeter and Becca Musser as Westmoreland (and Bardolph), Henry's main two lieutenants, also brought clarity and energy to their text, doing their level best to give the sense of a full army at the English King's back. Jahmorei Snipes as Fluellen had some delightful energy, although I should have liked to have more of the Welsh Captain's lines preserved. Emma Green as the Queen of France had an excellent presence and good text work - I should like to see her in more meaty roles. While Amelia Dudley as Boy - a role that's too often cut in productions - shone in her two speeches, helping the audience to understand the cost of British lives, and moving hearts at her death. Joe Raik, always a delight on stage, brought bravado and cowardice with Falstaffian flair to his Pistol, while pulling double duty as producer and director.
Other honorable mentions must include Jerry Raik taking several roles, including the King of France and the difficult opening speech regarding lines of succession, while Alex Rafala acquitted himself well as the Dauphin and Nym, and Andrew Ricks was particularly good as an English soldier who unwittingly offends Henry V in disguise.
Kudos must go to April Glick who swooped in with just a few rehearsals to go as Text Coach, to help keep the whole cast up to speed on the dense verse, tricky foreign and Elizabethan language, and Shakespeare's scansion. Leana Gardella's fight direction must also be given good notice, training her actor combatants admirably with quarterstaff, while also finding moments of worldbuilding through weaponry.
What Could Be Improved:
Occupy Harry was originally conceived, insofar as this reviewer understands it, to speak to gender politics by strategically casting actors between the French and English camps. Unfortunately, perhaps due to rehearsal processes, this idea didn't seem to play out as well as originally intended: with women in both nationalities, and nothing particular said about having a female King Henry or how that affects the sensation of invasion.
Andersen's Katharine clearly felt like a nod to this gender divide, and she played the invasion as best she could. However, ultimately it may be that Henry V is just not a vehicle for the battle of the sexes, even if it is a war between nations.
As Henry, newcomer Jesenia Pineda showed promise: she certainly has Prince Hal's fieriness and is eager to command the stage. She worked admirably for her Henry, but in a role that would have been written for Burbage at the height of his career - and in such a show that rests so entirely upon the role of England's warlike (and verbose) king - companies fare better by placing the burden of Henry upon those with a considerable background in handling Shakespeare's text. Still, it's a great good to give up-and-coming artists the opportunity to tackle someone as important as Henry, and Pineda's work with Glick's coaching was absolutely evident.
It's wonderful to see Occupy Verona back in business. And it's clear that both audience and actors enjoyed tackling such a vibrant play as Henry V. Speaking afterwards with some audience members who had never seen a history play, they were delighted to have finally understood and enjoyed Shakespeare's text - and that's a beautiful and invaluable service. Similarly, the impact of seeing a diverse cast expertly wielding weapons and fearlessly wading into Elizabethan language on a bright sunny day cannot be understated. Here's to hoping that this marks a return of Occupy to New York City's streets - and who knows what part of the Bard's text these few, these happy few, will occupy again?