Irondale Ensemble offers up a mostly clear-eyed chamber production of Shakespeare's grand history play.
The work, seen at a recent preview performance, centers on England's newly crowned title character (Matt Nuernberger), who has now left behind his reckless youth and emerges as a dynamic leader during a military campaign against France.
A cast of ten (plus a musician) brings the tale to life with just a few props, set pieces, and slight changes to the actors' modern-dress costumes. All but Nuernberger play multiple roles, with only a couple instances in which it's initially unclear what character they're taking on.
The young king's contradictions are emphasized in Niesen's staging. The play initially establishes that Henry is taking great pains to treat the locals well as his English troops march across France. His ruthlessness in battle then comes to the fore as he orders those under his command to kill all of their prisoners. The looks of horror and uncertainty that those on stage give him, before leaving to carry out his wishes, speak volumes.
One of the most effectively played scenes occurs when Henry disguises himself to listen to what his soldiers are saying on the night before a fateful battle. The monarch's doubt is in plain evidence, as is his temper during a brief altercation with one of his men (played by Terry Greiss) who calls into question the king's integrity.
Nuernberger handles Shakespeare's verse well, but needs more fire in his portrayal -- particularly during Henry's most famous motivational speeches addressed to his army. The actor also doesn't quite bring out either the humor or strategic calculation when Henry woos the French princess Katharine (Scarlet Maressa Rivera), making the scene play flatter than it should.
Rivera does well enough as Katharine, particularly in the scene where she attempts to learn English. But the actress makes some ill-advised choices as Hostess Quickly, starting with a rather badly done Cockney accent.
Of the other players, the standout is Patrena Murray, who has a powerful scene as the Duke of Exeter delivering a message of war to the King of France. She also delights as Katharine's attendant, Alice, possessing a comic expressivity that is most welcome.
Greiss has several good moments in a variety of roles, and Michael-David Gordon has a powerful presence and a facility with the Bard's language. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Gabriel King overplays the mannerisms of several of his parts, most notably Captain Fluellen.
The production contains several simple, yet nicely realized staging choices, chief amongst them the death of the boy character portrayed by Ben Matthews. Other members of the ensemble start out as French soldiers creeping up on him, pulling in their wake a drop cloth, with which they cover him. As the cloth is lifted, Matthews lies still on the ground, and the other actors have changed into the outfits identifying them as the English soldiers, now mourning the boy.
With a running time of roughly two hours, including an intermission, the production contains a number of cuts to the text. Most of this streamlining is for the good, and allows for a swiftly paced staging that hits all of the major beats. But there's a slight reordering of a scene involving the French herald Montjoy (Michael Kendrick) asking King Henry if they can count and attend to their dead. In the script, the herald goes off and comes back later with the list of the fallen. Here, he never leaves the stage, but still produces the list, which does not really make any sense.