REVIEW: Public Theater Mobile Unit’s “Henry V”
Joe Papp was a fierce believer in the idea that culture belongs to everyone, and that theatre is central to democracy. He founded the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954 by offering free performances of Shakespeare plays in Central Park, later convincing the city to build the Delacorte Theatre in 1961 where “Shakespeare in the Park” has played every summer since.
Papp founded The Public Theater in 1967 upon taking possession of the near-condemned Astor Library as the home base for his theatre company. While “Shakespeare in the Park” remains the institution’s marquee program, a lesser known program established from that same founding impulse of free, accessible theatre for all quietly celebrated its 60th anniversary last fall. Starting with “Romeo and Juliet” in 1957, the Public’s Mobile Unit brings free productions of Shakespeare’s plays directly to New York City residents who can’t make it to Central Park in the summer.
A bare bones, Mobile Unit “Henry V” opened at the 99-seat Shiva Theatre in the Public’s complex last night, capping a 20 stop tour throughout the five boroughs that included performances at 7 community centers, 6 correctional facilities, 2 public libraries, 2 social organizations, 1 historic chapel, and 1 homeless shelter. This is Shakespeare the way Papp intended—raw, grassroots, and accessible—and it is thrilling.
Director Robert O’Hara (playwright/director of “Mankind” and “Booty Candy”) puts a spin on Shakespeare’s 1599 account of King Henry V’s 1415 conquest of France by casting a black actress (the brilliant Zenzi Williams) in the title role. A consummate satirist and social critic who is deft at challenging perceptions of race, gender, and sexuality in playful and joyful ways, Mr. O’Hara milks an abridged version of Shakespeare’s text to emphasize and engorge every comedic moment possible, especially scenes featuring the French, all played to caricature.
This history play about a young king coming to power, proving himself in war, and taking a French princess for his wife is energetically brought to life by a troupe of 9 actors in some 17 roles, including a chorus. Performed in a carpeted square with a rolling throne as its only set piece, no light cues, and one set of black monochromatic costumes (design by Clint Ramos), this “Henry V” is designed to travel, but far from suffering from its austerity, the play thrives upon the low-budget synergy of its actors and audience. Mr. O’Hara undoubtedly takes the comedy too far, cheapening the serious themes at work in Shakespeare’s text, but he also provides a way in for audiences who aren’t as familiar with Elizabethan parlance.
The best part of attending a Mobile Unit performance is being in an audience that looks like the public—diverse in every sense—sharing a small space for two hours of no frills entertainment performed by a cast that looks like the public—diverse in every sense—where imagination meets the moment and the words of Shakespeare are animated and interpreted with egalitarian purpose. Joe Papp would be proud.
Bottom Line: The Public Theater's Mobile Unit presents a free production of “Henry V” for a short sit down at the Public following a 20 stop tour through the five boroughs. It’s bare bones and thrilling, infused with comedy by director Robert O’Hara. A comedic history play? Purists should stay away. Those looking to ease into Elizabethan text should check it out.
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: one hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: April 27, 2018
Final Performance: May 13, 2018
Tickets: free tickets are distributed on each performance day in the lobby of The Public Theater 90 minutes before each performance, and via TodayTix