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'Henry V' is ready for battle at Folger Theatre

 The king and I: Henry and Katherine make cute small talk.
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Date published: 1/31/2013


Heading into "Henry V," now onstage at the Folger Theatre in Washington, there's one thing I wish I knew. A bit of French.

Shakespeare's epic tale of a young English king who has his sights set on winning France is dramatic from the get-go. The Chorus (played by a disheveled Richard Sheridan Willis) appears before the audience, his hands tightly bounded by rope. A noose ominously hangs onstage in clear view. And this production does not deal lightly with traitors.

Director Robert Richmond wields a sharp hand with this production. Just take one look at the strikingly dark set design. Folger's small stage is overwhelmed by thick wooden beams that rise and fall by ropes pulled by the performers. (The design scheme is a nice disguise for the theater's existing hard-to-ignore columns.)

This staging of "Henry V," the final installment of Shakespeare's history plays, is clearly ready for battle.

There is so much going on in the first act, and its at-times sluggish pacing doesn't help. Several characters come and go, some facing a most unfortunate end, and messages are delivered back and forth between England and France. (Kudos to the performers swinging double or triple duty). There are some nice musical interludes in the mix, however.

At one point in the play, the Dauphin of France in conversation with the Constable, remarks "What a long night is this!" His comment garnered a huge chuckle from the audience, who maybe were feeling it, too.

All of this leads up to that great battle of Agincourt. And the final act is worth the investment. Trust me.

In a beautifully choreographed sequence, the English troops form a tight group with their shields coming together as one massive shield. (The trashcan lids from "Stomp" quickly come to mind.) One by one, characters come right through the middle of the group, their faces offering viewers a glimpse of what they might be feeling.

The battle of Harfleur is also exceptionally well-played, especially since it offers one of the king's most memorable speeches "Once more unto the breach, dear friends ."

The price of war and victory is not lost on this king, who exhibits strong emotions when seeing his men's suffering through the night or when discovering one of his own men had been killed.

The fresh-faced Zach Appelman stars as the determined young king who must unify his fellow soldiers. Beyond all the spirit-rousing words, we learn that Henry has a bit of a romantic side. And Appelman serves very well in this role with spot-on comic delivery as he tries to show viewers that Henry's got game. His scenes with Princess Katherine of France, who doesn't speak a lick of English at first, are delightful to watch. This is where those high-school French lessons would come in handy. The princess, played by the lovely Kathleen deBuys, offers a welcome dose of levity in this serious play, along with Folger veteran Catherine Flye as her gentlewoman.

Coming into another year of politics, "Henry V" is almost appropriate to watch as this king is challenged with leading a kingdom in times of war.

Gail Choochan is the editor of Weekender.

What: "Henry V" Where: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington

When: Through March 3 Cost: $30-$68 Info: 202/544-7077; folger.edu