On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in October 1415 (Scene I, Act IV of Shakespeare's Henry V), King Henry disguises himself as one of his soldiers, claiming to be a Mr. Henry Le Roy. In this guise he is able to interact with his soldiers and learn what they really think of him, both the good and bad. The majority of St. Crispin's Day takes place immediately before this meeting and focuses on the less-than-honorable exploits of Henry's men. It begins with these so-called soldiers discussing the risks of the upcoming battle. Throughout the play, there is a shared understanding that everyone might be dead the next day.
Pepper has borrowed several characters from Shakespeare: King Henry (Alex Draper), Captain Fuellen (Darren Goldstein), and drinking buddies Nym (Michael Gladis), Pistol (Tommy Schrider), Bardolph (Richard Liccardo), and their servant (Denis Butkus). (Although this fellow is nameless in Henry V, Pepper here calls him Tom.) New characters include an Irish solider named Will (David Wilson Barnes), Father Morphath (Lee Blair), a representative of the church, and imported whores Mary Anne (Mayhill Fowler) and Cecile (Lauren Berst).
St. Crispin's Day does not possess any sort of coherent plot; rather, it plays out as if it were one extended scene. The only hint of a storyline is the strange plan that Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph concoct to steal gold from the French church. Still, humorous moments abound and keep the show alive. For example, upon the arrival of two whores at the soldiers' barracks, young Tom and Cecile share a delightful moment of innocence before the forthcoming battle. Likewise, Michael Gladis makes the most of his time onstage as the slow Nym, clad in black-and-white-striped tights and wearing a pointed metal helmet with a nose flap. As Henry, Alex Draper makes a rather interesting entrance in white facial-makeup and a gold dress -- not exactly the sort of figure we'd expect to lead a bloody battle.
In the midst of this outrageous comedy is a very serious David Wilson Barnes as the smarter-than-average soldier Will. Not only does he serve as an intellectual contrast to the others, he is also an Irishman who damns the English as an "ignorant, bloodthirsty race." He knows that there is serious danger ahead but manages to keep calm. At the play's end, however, he urges young Tom to run away, claiming that to do so would be more honorable than to be killed for a foolish cause. This last scene is the closest that the play comes to real drama, with dead bodies covering the stage by the end of it. In the show's final moment, we see that Will is about to die from a violent bump on the head.
There is a special emphasis on large scale physical comedy in Simon Hammerstein's direction, which helps to evoke the burlesque atmosphere of Pepper's text. This approach is exemplified by Darren Goldstein as the very excited, very physical, very homosexual Captain Fuellen. While talking to the youthful Tom, he draws closer and closer to him physically until they are literally on top of each other. The soldiers also take up this form of physicality, breaking into Irish jigs and violently wrestling each other to the ground.
A final note: While familiarity with the text of Henry V can only increase one's understanding and enjoyment of St. Crispin's Day, such knowledge is not required and shouldn't prevent anyone from attending the show, which stands on its own feet as a well-crafted comedy.
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