Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., through June 9 (922-8900).
Boy meets country. Boy conquers country. Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl.
On first inspection, there's little more to Shakespeare's Henry V than this: the simple notion that, if we win a battle, and if the enemy loses 10,000 men and we lose only 29, then "God fought for us.''
But even if you don't like militarism and imperialism, there are other, more complex, stories that the play is telling - or can be made to tell in performance.
There's the story of a country emerging from civil war creating an alliance between quarreling nationalities (English, Welsh, Scots, Irish) to forge a new national identity. Or there's the story of a country pretending to forge an alliance between quarreling nationalities in order to facilitate a campaign of international imperialism.
There's the story of a young king who repeatedly shifts responsibility for conquest and bloodshed onto other people's shoulders ("What is't to me,'' he says to the governor of a city to which he has laid siege, "when you yourselves are the cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation?''), until he finally learns to take responsibility himself ("The day, my friends, and all things stay for me.''). Or there's the story of a young king who pretends to take responsibility himself but never does.
There's the story of women's beauty and purity vindicating male aggression, or the story of women's intelligence and contempt undermining male aggression. There's even, if you prefer (which I don't), the story of a young man growing up to learn that war, as even General Sherman acknowledged, is hell.
At the Arden, director Aaron Posner stages the play with just eight actors, on a broad alley (designed by James F. Pyne, Jr.) between two banks of seats, with platforms at either end representing England and France. By adding a CPO jacket, a vest, or a poncho to their bugle-boy jeans and collarless shirts, the actors shift between playing English and French, aristocrats and commoners, heroes and cowards.
The two women of the cast (Carla Belver and Susan McKey) speak the beautiful mock-apologetic choral speeches between the scenes, asking us to "piece out'' the theatre's representational "imperfections with [our] thoughts.'' And so we do, with the help of Posner's imaginative staging, particularly in the vividly- and economically-staged battle scenes, when the stage is plunged into darkness, with intermittent flashes of brilliantly- lit tableaux of violence, cruelty, and suffering.
Posner tells the story swiftly, trimming speeches here and there, along with whole characters and incidents (the performance clocks in at barely two-and-a-quarter hours, with intermission). But in doing so, he cuts out much of the material that makes the play potentially complex: the interplay of feuding nationalities, the incorrigibility of Henry's old tavern-buddies, the position of Henry's courtship of the French Princess in a complicated set of geo-political negotiations, even most of the lines and speeches in which Henry shifts or takes on responsibility for his actions.
With all this gone, all that's left of King Henry is his charisma - and that's the one thing conspicuously lacking in Michael Medico's performance as Henry (along with big chunks of the role, including significant bits of the wooing scene and his "Once more unto the breach'' battlecry). I've seen actors equally slight, equally un-macho, and equally charmless in the role, but they were acting in richer and more complex productions. With little else to hold our attention, this Henry make no impression whatsoever.
Most of the other actors have their moments to shine: McKey, easily shocked but worldly, as the Princess of France; Lester Purry, wearing sunglasses even around a campfire, as the French dauphin; Joe Guzman, in his beautiful description of the deaths of the Duke of York and the Earl of Suffolk on the battlefield; and Belver, with her touching account of the death of Falstaff. But none of these are enough to carry the play.
In its early years, the Arden used to advertise itself as presenting "good stories, well told.'' In Henry V, Posner tells his story well; it's just not much of a story.
With Kirk Wendell Brown (using A Caribbean accent for Captain Fluellen's Welsh), Anthony Lawton, and H. Michael Walls (who loses some of his best scenes, and any real connection to the plot, as Pistol). Percussionist Toshi Makihari punctuates much of the action with drums riffs, gongs, and triangle pings, on a drum set that creates more noise than music.