The age of 'Henry V' at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival
In the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival's (PSF) 24 seasons, "Henry V" has only been produced once, in 2002.
"Henry V" previews July 16 and 17, opening July 18 and continuing through Aug. 2, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, Center Valley.
"This one's been on the docket for a while," says Matt Pfeiffer, "Henry V" director and long-time PSF artist.
"Henry V," the most famous of William Shakespeare's historical plays, tells the tale of Prince Hal turned king as he rises to his father's station and is faced with a world on the brink of war. While this grand history influenced much of the story itself, Shakespeare's history shaped how it was staged.
"Shakespeare's company was moving locations," says Pfeiffer, "so the 'cockpit' or 'wooden o' is a reference to just that, trying to utilize a small stage to tell a grand story."
Written records of original performances show that Shakespeare himself would come out on stage at the beginning of each staging, asking audiences to suspend their disbelief and imagine the world surrounding the actors.
Pfeiffer looks to honor that circumstance with actors wearing elaborate garb that starkly contrasts with the plain stage, a wooden half-circle.
"With today's technology, film can do so much. Just look at 'Game of Thrones' or 'Lord of the Rings.' But theater ... the actors on the stage, live music ... it gives it all life, energy you can't get anywhere else."
This allows audiences' imaginations to fuel the scenes while the actors give believable performances to fill that world, as Shakespeare intended. This is made all the more apparent by the talent backing this work.
Pfeiffer has been with PSF for 17 years, starting as an intern and working his way up to an actively returning director. The rest of the cast, because of this, has deep-rooted relationships with Pfeiffer. Of those working on "Henry V," only one actor is performing for the first time with PSF.
"It's a rare environment where audiences get to know specific actors so well over the years, coming back each year and seeing these familiar faces in distinctly different roles and positions," observes Pfeiffer.
Much like the actors evolving with age and experience, so does the play itself. As time passes, the play continues to take new contexts and new meanings within the same themes, speaking differently to each new generation. In this vein, Pfeiffer presents the argument that those of us who enjoy Captain America's exploits will connect with "Henry V," as well.
"[Henry's] sort of the English Cap [Captain America], standing for justice. It's the original band of brothers as they go to war, giving the famous Saint Crispus' Day's speech, inspiring his soldiers to win the day."
Similar to the Marvel films of today, Pfeiffer reassures theater-goers not to be put off or deterred by the rich history that precedes "Henry V" in "Richard II," "Henry IV Part I, or "Henry IV Part II."
One of the most memorable moments of these allusions is in reference to Falstaff, a prominent mentor of Hal throughout the last three books who, early in this play, passes away. Yet, much like someone mentioning Steven Strange's name in passing in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," Pfeiffer feels that Falstaff is something of an Easter Egg for fans to fawn over.
The important part for theater-goers, however, is the reactions of the characters in the moment.
"Shakespeare circumvents this history in favor of a character piece, filling these moments with relatable emotions that everyone has felt at one time or another."
Ultimately, the piece looks to touch on war and the sacrifices associated with it, something Pfeiffer feels people have forgotten in recent years. It's also what he refers to as a "fan-boy story," with Hal, something of a rapscallion and ne'er-do-well when he was younger, rising to the occasion, having to face the hero's journey.
"We watch the Avengers fight Ultron because we want to watch them struggle and ultimately succeed, something that we've been coming back for years. In a way, 'Henry V' is the closest Shakespeare ever came to writing a blockbuster movie."
Above all, Pfeiffer wants theater-goers to see this piece as an allegory for their own struggles and how they can rise above them.
"Despite the challenges that lie in some of you, if you believe in yourself, you can accomplish great things, and Shakespeare captures this very well. So much of the play is about finding that thing in yourself, to fight for justice, to be a better person. Henry V, both the character and the play, embodies this."
Tickets: pashakespeare.org, 610.282.WILL (9455)