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Summer Shakespeare festival concludes with a compelling exploration of war.

Regarding "Henry"

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"Henry V"
Richmond Shakespeare Festival
Agecroft Hall
8 p.m., Thursday - Sunday
Through July 25
$12
270-3310

The movie "Saving Private Ryan" won accolades last year for showing the brutal cost of war while also glorifying the heroism of simple men. Not to diminish Mr. Spielberg, but with "Henry V," Shakespeare dramatized the same themes a good 400 years ago with more resonance and depth. The play is an epic exploration of war, honor, mercy and power. That the Encore! Theater Company chose to tackle such a complex work in this summer's Richmond Shakespeare Festival is a testament to the confidence and skill the troupe has acquired in just two short seasons.

While this "Henry" isn't perfect, it does demonstrate the many positive attributes of a company poised to do justice to the Bard's best. There are some stand-out performances, most notably by Richmond newcomer Anthony Cerbins, and numerous examples of innovative staging by director Jamie Cheatham. RSF continues to build its technical know-how. Even in the first preview performance I saw, the lighting and sound designs were more rich and varied than in previous productions.

Still, "Henry" is a big story and this production reveals that Encore! is perhaps too comfortable with smaller things. For example, after the military march that begins the show, the cast briefly breaks into some wild improv dancing. Light moments like these can be tossed off in Shakespearean comedies to make them more accessible. But, presented without a clear or consistent sense of irony, they serve more to distract from a history play like "Henry."

And what a compelling history it is. The young King Henry V (Grant Mudge) of England, new to the crown, decides to stake a claim to the monarchy of France. He begins a campaign against the French that ends with the momentous battle at Agincourt. Along the way, Shakespeare reveals the hearts and souls of soldiers at every level, from an arrogant prince, Dauphin (Cerbins), to a common foot-soldier, Pistol (Carl Martin), to a lowly luggage boy (Virginia Galloway). We see both noble and ignoble deeds committed by the powerful and the weak alike.

At the center of it all is Henry. Mudge plays the king as a contrite but determined ruler, a man who attributes his successes solely to God's will but who can threaten the French with violent promises like seeing their "naked infants spitted upon pikes." In the early scenes, Mudge seems reluctant to infuse his Henry with full-blown royal intensity. But this underplaying contrasts with his angry responses in later battle scenes, adding dramatic weight to his character.

The battles are a challenge to choreograph but director Cheatham uses creative means to overcome them, including using props and costumes from the early 20th century to help dramatize the action. The famous "once more into the breach ..." pep talk is transformed into a dynamic scene that moves from a telegraph office to the front lines. Cheatham's one major misstep is the projection of actual pictures from America's wars, notably Vietnam. The idea isn't necessarily bad but the many pictures that feature Asians are jarring; isn't "Henry V" about a war between two primarily Caucasian countries?

Still, this last offering in the summer's Shakespeare Festival has plenty of action, spirited performances, and even several hearty laughs included. It bodes well for even bigger and better shows next

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