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Theater review by Regina Robbins
After a three-week tour of the five boroughs, the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit has returned to Astor Place to perform its abridged, low-tech production of Henry V. A lively, diverse nine-person cast takes us from castle to battlefield and back again as the young king of England (played lustily by Zenzi Williams) makes war on his neighbors and cousins in France. The real-life Henry cemented his place in history and legend by—medieval spoiler alert!—leading an exhausted, outnumbered army to victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Shakespeare’s version is every inch the bold, inspirational sovereign, but he’s also plagued by guilt over how his father came to the throne (cough cough regicide cough) and insecurity about his own legitimacy.
Casting a woman of color as Henry brings new layers to this already morally ambivalent drama, and Williams is fabulous, especially in her rabble-rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech. But director Robert O’Hara plays up the text’s humor almost to the point of parody; the French get the worst of it, as the cast goes full throttle into fey Gallic stereotype. Undoubtedly Shakespeare intended some of these scenes to be funny, but in 2018, falling back on “The French are sissies!” feels lazy. Mobile Unit shows are free, so it may be churlish to complain that this production is too much fun. But folks who are going to be seeing a Shakespeare play for perhaps the first time should get the full experience; this Henry V is one you can cheer for, but not one that commands your undying devotion.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert O’Hara. With Zenzi Williams. Running time: 1hr 45mins. No intermission.
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