Delaware Shakespeare (the company has dropped the word Festival from its name) marks its 15th summer season this month with a festive and rousing production of one of Shakespeare's best-known history plays, Henry V, now through July 30.
An outdoor performance set up in a lovely clearing in Wilmington's Rockford Park, where beverages and food were sold, this was as much a party as a play. The audience was relaxed and utterly enthusiastic, applauding the players after each scene.
Henry V is the final part of a tetralogy that includes Richard II; Henry IV, Part 1; and Henry IV, Part 2. It's an inspiring war story that re-creates one of those events Shakespeare's contemporaries loved to celebrate, the Battle of Agincourt (1415), in which English forces roundly defeated the numerically superior French army in Northern France.
Henry V – or Harry, as he's often called in the play – is a party boy in the earlier plays, an entitled child who hangs out with a band of ruffians led by Falstaff. Henry V offers us an entirely different Harry. He has cast off Falstaff and assumed adulthood. Still, he's an untested ruler and has to go off to war just two years after taking the throne.
Written a decade after Elizabeth I achieved a great victory by smashing the Spanish Armada in 1588, Henry V can be read as Shakespeare's tribute to his queen, a controversial and untested monarch who proved her critics wrong with her own decisive victory.
And director Jessica Bedford approaches Delaware Shakespeare's production in much the same spirit: This Henry V is played by a woman, Temple alum Emilie Krause (Funnyman at the Arden).
While Henry-played-by-a-woman certainly is a bold casting decision, Bedford doesn't do much else with the role. She doesn't alter the lines to reflect the choice, and she has Krause play Harry pretty much as a guy, including the scenes in Act 5 when Harry woos the French princess, Katharine of Valois (Delaware Shakespeare's Savannah Jackson).
Happily, Krause makes for an impressive Harry. She's especially good at balancing the character's vulnerability and uncertainty with more forceful moments when he fully assumes the mantle of power, as when he brutally crushes an assassination plot hatched by the Earl of Cambridge (Nico Galloway).
The production handled the action scenes efficiently, but it excelled when it came to the play's more comic elements, including Shakespeare's take on regional stereotypes, featuring interactions among a Scot, an Irishman, an Englishman, and a Welshman.
Adam Altman (Uncle Vanya at Hedgerow Theatre) is simply brilliant as the Welshman Fluellen, while David Pica (36 Views at Lantern Theater Company) showed himself a master of physical comedy as Pistol.
Delaware Shakespeare's Henry V is a rousing good time. Bring a chair or a blanket, along with some bevvies, and take it all in.