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Henry V in the Park

Patrick Moltane plays the lead in the Shakespeare in Delaware Park production of "Henry V." (photo by Krystal Champagne)

Is it possible to be both a great king and a decent human being? That is the question that William Shakespeare explores in Henry V. Shakespeare in Delaware Park is now performing the play in a production directed by Saul Elkin, starring Patrick Moltane.

The play is part of a sequence of Shakespeare’s great history plays. When Henry V was first performed in the newly constructed Globe Theater, audiences would have been familiar with Henry, Mistress Quickly and the friends of Henry’s youth from Henry IV, parts I and II.

As Henry V begins, rambunctious Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays has settled down. He is now Henry V, King of England.

The Elizabethan notion that a king is two people—one a man like any other; the other, a divine being selected by God—runs through Shakespeare’s histories. In one illuminating sequence, Henry disguises himself as a commoner to hear what men in the ranks are saying about him.

Because Henry’s father had usurped the throne, his own claim to the crown is also dubious. To make his reign seem legitimate, Henry V goes through acrobatic feats to make a convincing argument that God is on his side.

Not all of his deeds are commendable. In order to maintain his rule, he turns his back on friends and initiates a war with France in which thousands die. In other respects, he is an honorable and heroic leader.

Few communities have the opportunity to see Shakespeare for free summer after summer as Buffalonians have for the past 39 years. It is easy to take for granted how quickly these productions are mounted on a provisional outdoor stage in a public park, and how much the festival depends upon the collective experience of performing Shakespeare represented by the company.

As Henry, Patrick Moltane strides onto the Delaware Park stage with more confidence and self-assurance than I have seen in a leading player in that setting for many years. His command of his words is assertive and absolute. His possession of the character is unwavering. This is all the more remarkable, because weather prevented the company from running the entire play until days before opening.

The greatest virtue of Moltane’s performance is his clarity of expression. He lands each word with deliberate intention and specific meaning. It is easy to undervalue this skill, but in the expanse of Delaware Park, words can otherwise be easily lost—and we have often, over the past three decades, seen players who do not seem to understand what they are saying.

This is a distinctly analytical performance, as Moltane seems to have chosen intelligibility and precision over the thrilling heroics and heights of emotion generally associated with the role.

Delaware Park favorite Tim Newell gets plenty of mileage out of the plumb morsels of stage time provided by the role of the “chorus.” This narrator character, absent from the first published quartos of the play, evokes the “muse of fire,” and comments on the “wooden ‘o’” of the Globe Theater, encouraging the audience to use its imagination to evoke an English army invading France. With bleached hair and extreme costume, Newell has been set apart from the Elizabethan players as a character apart. The choice is arguably peculiar and certainly inexplicable, but we have grown accustomed to such flights of whimsy in Delaware Park, and the choice does add fun.

It is always a pleasure to see Darlene Pickering-Hummert as Mistress Quickly. Here she is—again—in Henry V, mostly relegated to offstage concern for ailing Sir John Falstaff who never appears and dies during the play. (Henry has so completely abandoned the friends of his youth that their deaths barely signify for him).

For many people, the reason for Shakespeare in Delaware Park is equal parts Olmsted Park and Shakespeare, and we were treated to an exquisitely perfect evening behind the rose garden looking out onto Hoyt Lake on the opening night. The play is expansive (and arguably runs a little too long for the park) but does afford many wonderful Buffalo actors with the chance to dig into Shakespeare.

Arianne Davidow is charmingly funny as Katherine, the French princess who wants to practice her English. Marie Hasselback-Costa matches her marvelously as her devoted servant. Larry Rowswell does well as complicated Canterbury. Tom Loughlin and Gerry Maher are as skilled and appealing as ever in the roles of Pistol and Fluellen. I particularly enjoyed Adam Yellen as the long-suffering messenger from France. Joe Liolos is always a pleasure. Elliot Fox does well as ill-fated Bardolph—the Henry IV plays are much more fun for him.

And in the spirit of community and company let us not forget the invaluable contributions of Tyler Austin, Steve Brachmann, Benjamin Caldwell, Scott McKenna Campbell, Brendan Cunningham, Dan Greer, Nathanial W.C. Higgins, Scot Kaitanowski, Brett Anthony Klaczyk, David Marciniak, John Profeta, Adam Rath, Larry Smith, and Matt Snyder as the smart-alecky French Dauphin. Yes it is a large cast and we do not really need all that much imagination to conjure an entire army!

Director Saul Elkin has tucked in dozens of inventions and little embellishments, begged and borrowed from many a Henry before—the drummers who advance down to the apron of the stage, the archers who fire directly into the audience, the happy fluctuation of comedy and heroism. The result is a faithful rendering of one of Shakespeare’s great histories and a gracious evening in a beautiful park.