From the opening moments of Independent Shakespeare Co.'s "Henry V" at Barnsdall Park in Hollywood, you know you're in for an unexpectedly cheeky evening. (To reveal anything more about the pre-curtain antics would be a spoiler.)
It may seem odd that Shakespeare's blood-soaked tale, the final play in his second historical tetralogy, should commence on such a carefree note. Yet the tone seems completely appropriate. This "Henry" was born in a trunk, almost literally. Indeed, the main set piece is a trunk, which functions as a repository for props and a handy seating area. The sparseness of stage furniture indicates a lighter production, not only in the sense of its stripped-down portability but in its general blitheness.
The actors include a blend of professionals and willing amateurs. As is typically the case with this company, some in the smaller roles are less than stellar. Yet all share an engaging looseness and an infectious spirit of fun.
This "Henry" is essentially a reprise of the then-New York-based company's inaugural 1999 production, which was conceived and directed by the entire cast. Another remounting marked the company's 2002 Los Angeles debut. That proven history is evident in this staging, directed by David Melville with Cassandra Johnson.
In this case, familiarity breeds invention. The action, of course, revolves around the attempted conquest of France by King Henry V (the typically superlative Melville), a seemingly misbegotten venture that culminates in the legendary Battle of Agincourt, in which the seemingly hopelessly outnumbered English forces score a near-miraculous victory against their French foes.
It's typical for Shakespeare to mingle the serious and the clownish, and there are plenty of comic-relief characters in this mix. However, a good portion of the comedy comes from surprising sources. Melissa Chalsma charms in multiple roles not as evidently comedic, most particularly as the Princess Katherine, whose English lesson with her lady-in-waiting (Sean Pritchett, also excellent in multiple roles) is a highlight.
Scholars are divided over whether the play is a patriotic call to arms or slyly antiwar. Melville and Johnson seesaw, effectively, between the two interpretations. Pointed anachronisms abound. On the march, the English troops sing a roguish rendition of "Onward, Christian Soldiers." In a similar vein, Kate Bishop's costumes blend period attire with modern dress, yet another clue that this history is strictly revisionist. Yet when Melville launches into the famous St. Crispin's Day speech, the tongue comes out of his cheek and his resulting eloquence raises goose bumps. It is a galvanic moment in this playful production, which artfully mingles the serious with the silly.
Where: Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 14, 22 and 28. Ends Aug. 28
Price: Free, but reservations recommended
Contact: (323) 836-0288
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes