'Henry V' At Hartford Stage Aims For A Contemporary Feel In The Round

The V in "Henry V” at Hartford Stage could stand for "versatility.”

In scanning the cast list for this new production of Shakespeare’s historical drama “Henry V,” what stands out is that most of the actors have remarkably diverse resumes, and most are also known for being great ensemble players.

Such exemplary “people skills” should help clarify and balance the Bard’s far-reaching account of the events surrounding England’s victory in the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years’ War. Besides its titular young monarch and the soldiers he leads — “once more into the breach, dear friends, once more” — the play is populated with dukes, bishops, conspirators, cousins, nobles, military officers and a bunch of drunkards lollygagging around the tavern.

“These are a lot of my favorite actors,” says “Henry V” director Elizabeth Williamson, also Hartford Stage’s associate artistic director. “I know their work really well. I trust them.”

Williamson has given this “Henry V” a vaguely modern setting and the cast a contemporary wardrobe so as to draw connections between how leaders acted in 1415 (when the play is set, around the Battle of Agincourt in France), in 1599 (when the play was written) and today, when ideas of heroism, warfare, diplomacy and leadership are constantly being addressed and redefined.

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“It was important that the company felt like America today,” Williamson says of the multiracial, multicultural ensemble. Nearly all the actors take on multiple roles, including some cross-gender casting. “I was thinking “about how it was done originally — contemporary clothes, all men…

“’Henry V,’ if you trust the scholars, is the only Shakespeare play with contemporary political references. … The war in the play would have felt very immediate to them: the idea of being rounded up to go off to war, the questions of leadership and succession.

“As I was putting together the company, I was wondering why are there so many new characters in acts three and four? Then I realized that Shakespeare is showing you everyone who goes to war.

“Henry has decided to go to war. Special interests have helped him decide to go to war. His warrior uncle has helped him decide to go to war. But when you get to war, who’s there?”

“Henry V” is the first Shakespeare play that Williamson has directed, but it also happens to be “the first Shakespeare play I really fell in love with. I read it when I was 12.”

The Hartford Stage production will be staged in the round, only the second arena-style production in the theater’s history.

To Stephen Louis Grush, who’s playing the title role in the play, that makes for “an intimate exchange between the public and the actor. The stage is on the floor. The actors are sharing the same physical space as the audience. It’s one of the things that keeps theater alive.”

Grush hails from New Orleans but spent much of his career in Chicago, where he worked with such exemplary ensemble-based companies as Steppenwolf Theatre.

“This feels like home to me,” he says of Hartford Stage’s “Henry V.”

As for his commanding role, “you’re seeing a young man making some bad choices,” says Grush, who has played headstrong young men previously in “Romeo and Juliet” and the contemporary romance “Sex With Strangers.”

“The character loses something if we don’t acknowledge his age. There’s the young man’s feeling of pride, the need to prove himself. …

“Henry is not a hero. He made choices that led to violence. Unchecked leadership can bring some pretty severe consequences.”

Amid the violence and severity, though, “Elizabeth is always pointing out moments of levity,” Grush says. “It wouldn’t be true to Shakespeare’s work if it didn’t have some comedy in it. There’s some really funny stuff.”

“There had better be comedy in this,” Williamson says. “It’s so dark otherwise.”

That’s one reason she brought stand-up comedian Baron Vaughn into the cast, who also has a lot of acting experience, though in a recent phone interview he admits that “I haven’t done a play in over a decade.”

Originally from New Mexico and now based in L.A., Vaughn worked with Hartford Stage artistic director Darko Tresnjak in a 2003 production of “Under Milkwood” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Among other roles in “Henry V,” Vaughn is playing Mistress Quickly, a funny character found in several different Shakespeare plays.

“She’s one of the tavern folk,” Vaughn says, “one of the common folk that are swept up in this war.”

For his interpretation of this double-entendre-spouting character, the comedian says, “I’m pushing it towards drag, but I’m still playing with it.”

Among the other actors creating that world of battle-ready English, Irish, and Scottish citizens, not to mention a slew of civilians, are Peter Francis James, who serves as the show’s narrator and also plays Sir Thomas Erpingham. James co-starred in the experimentally inclined Richard Foreman production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Venus” at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1996, shortly after appearing in “Richard III” at Hartford Stage.

Likewise, Felicity Jones Latta has been seen in Connecticut in everything from the anarchic “The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls” at Yale Rep to “The Diary of Ann Frank” at Westport Country Playhouse to the national tour of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at The Bushnell. Both James and Latta stood out (as the friar and the nurse respectively) in “Romeo and Juliet” at Westport Country Playhouse last year.

Others in the “Henry V” cast are already familiar to Hartford Stage audiences: Miles Anderson, who starred in “Heartbreak House,” Kate Forbes from “Hamlet,” Liam Craig from last season’s premiere of “Seder” and Jamie Rezanour from “Queens for a Year.”

“With an incredible cast like this, I am here to learn,” Vaughn says. “I’m learning a lot from every other actor in this. It’s easy to get caught up in the language, but there needs to be a lot of physicality. The play depends on the actors to tell the story.

“There’s so much complexity that you could do the play and cut Henry out of it, and it would still make sense.”

“There’s a real ensemble feel. It’s very collaborative between the actors and Elizabeth. It’s very physical. No big effects. No heavy accents. Nothing too insane or elaborate.”

HENRY V runs through Nov. 11 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with other 2 p.m. matinees on Oct. 24 and Nov. 3 and 10; and Sunday evening performances at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 14 and 28. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org.

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