With King Henry the Fifth, the overall effect of the Prenzie Players' Henriad trilogy can be demonstrated in about five minutes of stage time. Shakespeare's titular ruler, played by Jeff De Leon, is invading the French province of Harfleur, and the scene begins with a literal explosion of sound - an edifice-shaking cannon boom, followed by the impassioned cries of the English and French soldiers engaging in battle. Over the next few minutes, the bellowing and booming hit greater and greater peaks of intensity, until finally Henry is standing at the gates of Harfleur, demanding that the governor surrender his township.
"Take pity of your town and of your people," implores Henry to the governor's balcony. "If not, why, in a moment look to see the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters ... your naked infants spitted upon pikes ... ."
And after his recitation, the Harfleurian governor (played by the lovely, wonderfully focused Beth Woolley) appears on the balcony, and cradled in the character's arms is an honest-to-God infant.
Put simply, the moment is extraordinary. This child (Josef Bodenbender) is not a figure in Shakespeare's text, but his on-stage appearance proves to be a fantastically shrewd addition. It takes the audience aback - My God, you think, there's actually a baby up there - and creates a palpable hush, but it takes Henry aback, too, as the seven-month-old's presence underlines the true consequences of the king's invasion. This brief encounter is so dramatically rich, and adds so much to our understanding of what, exactly, is at stake, that you all but ignore what a feat this must have been - how on Earth did that deafening cannon fire and the cast's shouting not cause little Josef, from backstage, to bawl his head off? (Like his parents - Prenzie veterans Cait and Karl Bodenbender - Josef proves himself a remarkably poised stage actor.)
What started with a volatile mÃƒÂªlée ends on a stunningly serene grace note, and the sequence is indicative of the superb control of the Prenzies' Henriad in general, and King Henry the Fifth in particular. (The trilogy began, at Rock Island's Masonic Temple, with October's King Richard the Second, and continued in February's King Henry the Fourth.) With direction credited to J.C. Luxton (who also wrote the adaptation), Jeremy Mahr, Tracy Skaggs, and "the cast," the mood and pitch seem to change with every new scene, yet the effect isn't disorienting. The Prenzies' rhythms are so assured that the show - performed theatre-in-the-round style - vacillates between high comedy and aching tragedy, between soulful introspection and glorious stage combat, without ever feeling overreaching or inappropriate.
At the start, the earnestness of the palace sequence segues effortlessly into the hilarity of Henry's former colleagues, who engage in a ticklish Shakespearean riff on Crocodile Dundee's "You call that a knife?" routine. The Harfleur encounter morphs into sheer playfulness, with the French Princess Catherine (Stephanie Burrough) and her lady-in-waiting (Linnea Ridolfi) practicing English by referencing audience members' body parts. ("Et le coude?" "De elbow." "De elbow.") The marvelous variety on display is, of course, a credit to Shakespeare, but also a credit to the inspiring skill of the Prenzies, whose commitment and passion are never in question, and whose imagination and energy never waver.
Cait Bodenbender immediately sets an intimidatingly high bar - as the play's Chorus, she enters with a gorgeous take on the "Dido's Lament" aria from Dido & Aeneas, and subsequently delivers lucid and fully engaged narration - and one after another, the actors (most of whom assume more than one role) prove similarly astounding. Matt Moody and Denise Yoder perform with fiercely determined, robust authority, while Chris Moore and Maggie Woolley are ferally funny and, in the moments before Nim's and Bardolph's executions, positively heart-wrenching. (Her talents have been beautifully employed in the last four Prenzie shows, but Woolley can never be on stage quite as often as I'd like.)
The radiant honesty of returning players Ridolfi, Jill Sullivan-Bennin, and Jessica Armentrout continues to enthrall. The unforced self-assurance of Prenzie newcomers Melanie Radkiewicz and gifted stage technician Jennifer Kingry is a delight. Bryan Woods provides welcome amusement as the scoundrel Pistol, bedecked in gold-dyed sneakers and a pimp fedora. (King Henry the Fifth's costumes are, without question, the sharpest I've yet seen from this organization.) And River Cities' Reader employee Burrough delivers such inventive portrayals that I'm honored to spend my weekdays in the same building as her; she's equally magnetic as comedienne and tragedienne.
At the play's center is De Leon, giving a performance of utter confidence and thrillingly subtle emotionalism; as a military leader, you'd follow this Henry anywhere. Yet beyond his spellbinding dramatic moments - De Leon's expressions upon discovering Nim's and Bardolph's treachery, or realizing how few casualties his armies have suffered, feel devastatingly true - the lightness of spirit he brings to the role is wholly unexpected, and absolutely joyous. Buoyed by his armies' climactic victory, De Leon's Henry proposes marriage to Catherine in a deliriously musical torrent of words ("When France is mine and I am yours then yours is France and you are mine!") and can't resist punctuating them with a giddy, childlike "Yay!" Which is pretty much what I was saying throughout the production.
In a staggering moment of absolution, Bodenbender's Chorus sings "Dona Nobis Pacem" amidst a stage of dead French and English soldiers (all played by women), and one by one, the deceased rise, grasp hands, and join in the singing. Yet when these splendid female voices are accompanied by the rich baritone of a familiar male one, whose apparition finally grants them the peace they seek, the moment is indescribably beautiful - it brought tears to my eyes, and may just linger in my mind forever. (I won't spoil the play's guest star for you, but God bless him for his participation.)
So thank you, Prenzies, for King Henry the Fifth, and thank you for The Henriad. Including the works' introductory half-hours, the whole of the series clocked in at roughly nine-and-a-half hours, and they were - easily - among the most enjoyable hours of theatre I've ever experienced.
For information, visit (http://www.prenzieplayers.com).