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Review: A spare yet forceful 'Henry V' at Pacific Resident Theatre

The Pacific Resident Theatre’s new production of Shakespeare's “Henry V," directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, is about as spare and unvarnished as the theater gets. The set consists of a few folding chairs in the blackest, boxiest of conceivable black-box stages.

There’s one prop: a tinny-looking crown. The 11-member cast, onstage the entire time and slipping in and out of various roles, wear thrift-shop chic. For example, to mark his transformation from the delinquent Prince Hal to the steely King Henry V, Joe McGovern (who, with Cienfuegos, adapted the text) unzips his hoodie to reveal a "Slayer" T-shirt.

When the house opens, the company is milling about, bantering, kicking a ball, playing with somebody’s dog. The vibe is weirdly chill -- like maybe you got the date wrong and you've stumbled into a read-through, an impression enhanced when they take their seats around a long folding table. But everything changes once actor Alex Fernandez, who plays the Chorus, opens a paperback and begins, “O for a muse of fire…”

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In the famous speech that follows, the Chorus describes his theater as an "unworthy scaffold," an inadequate setting to conjure the great battle of Agincourt.

When the play is performed on a spacious, well-appointed set, the question “Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” sounds like false modesty, or pointless rhetoric. This company takes it as a flung gauntlet: Let's see if this cockpit can hold the vasty fields of France. 

And their answer, in their vivid and thrilling performance, is yes. Using just their bodies and voices (and one astonishing special effect I will not spoil), Cienfuegos and his cast create a testament to the power of theater in its purest form.   

No, not every moment is perfect. Perhaps as a concession to audience members who haven't memorized all the history plays, Cienfuegos and McGovern splice in some back story from "Henry IV": a few scenes of Prince Hal's happier times with Falstaff (Dennis Madden) and a memory of the deathbed advice of King Henry IV (Fernandez). Although useful for context, they feel rushed and a bit choppy, and occasionally it's unclear whether Madden is supposed to be Falstaff or his other role, the King of France. The "comic" scenes with Pistol (Norman Scott) and Nym (Carole Weyers) are limp. 

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And at a certain point, the cast's habit of responding to Henry's every remark with phony-sounding, booming laughter becomes irritating.

But these are nitpicks. McGovern, more rock star than a soldier, crackles with charisma, particularly in his charged, steamy courtship of the French princess, Katherine, also played by the radiant Weyers. Weyers and Joan Chodorow, who plays Katherine's lady-in-waiting, display a natural and charming rapport.

And as the Chorus, Fernandez is a compelling impresario, completely in command of this "unworthy" stage and the very real people who populate it. 

“Henry V,” Pacific Resident Theatre, 707 Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 23. $20. (310) 822-8392 or www.pacificresidenttheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. 

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