Guerre Is Hell

We'll always have Paris: Nicole Leach as the French princess and Liev Schreiber in the title role of Henry V. Photo: Michal Daniel

American English simply isn’t good enough for Shakespeare. This is particularly so in the Histories. What is mouthed by some of the paltry thespians in the Central Park Henry V is an insult to his honored bones. Part of the play’s beauty is in its panoply of British speech, high and low, English or Scottish or Welsh; the only varieties heard in the park are the sundry boroughs of New York.

Mark Wing-Davey’s direction is lively enough, and in ways even inventive, though the invention is often pointless (why should it rain on Mountjoy and no one else?) and more often vulgar (Pistol caught defecating by Henry; Queen Isabel played by a fat man; Times Square–like posters of royalty; the backs of the French nobles’ costumes spelling out, one letter per man, VIVE LA GUERRE!; and so on). But the siege of Harfleur and some battle scenes are well enough managed, and an almost Ionescoan number of chairs is skillfully deployed.

Mark Wendland’s simple scenery works tidily, and Gabriel Berry’s blend of Shakespearean and modern costumes has a macaronic charm. David Weiner’s lighting, except when fluorescent, is acceptable, too, but John Gromada’s music is pedestrian.

In the supporting cast, David Costabile (Archbishop of Canterbury and Mount-joy), Adam Dannheiser (Constable of France), Mercedes Herrero (Nell Quickly and Alice), and Peter Gerety (as Fluellen, but not as Queen Isabel) pass muster; the others range from questionable to pitiful. Bronson Pinchot’s Pistol and Ryan Shively’s Dauphin are thoroughly obnoxious, but the worst offenders are Daniel Oreskes, whose Exeter is all smug bluster, and Steven Rattazzi, odious in two smaller roles and insufferable enough in the glorious part of the Chorus for my palms to itch for his throat.

Liev Schreiber is probably a better Henry than other young American actors would be, which, however, speaks less well for him than ill for them. He does decently by the straightforward early scenes and the comic final ones, but lacks variety and subtlety in between. His consonants are a bit overelocuted, and his tempos often too deliberate. If this production is remembered for anything, it will be for Princess Katherine’s perfectly gratuitous nude shower scene, and for the French court’s swimming pool, worthy of Mary Zimmerman’s inanities.

Deborah Warner’s The Angel Project, a guided tour of New York City, has been variously proclaimed performance art, a scavenger hunt, a turning of New York into a “Holy City.” I call it a fool’s errand. From a starting point on Roosevelt Island, “explorers” are taken by golf buggy, subway car, elevator, and, mostly, Shank’s mare (shoe leather) to nine locations, where either allegedly startling views of urban architecture, or odd objects quizzically arranged, supposedly supply a new kind of theater. In two to three hours of perambulation, through perusal of archly displayed or cutely concealed scraps of inscribed paper, or by gaping at bridges from below or buildings from above, the seeker (made to go it alone and talk to no one) discovers … what? Chiefly Warner’s preciously artsy-fartsy pseudo-ingenuity. A basic self-contradiction prevails. What is the connection between architecture, which is big and perdurable, and petty artifacts cutely arranged but utterly ephemeral? Not to mention hapless individuals, some with angels’ wings, sitting, squatting, or lying in uncomfortable postures, dumb and immobile. It is all either flagrantly obvious to the normally ambience-conscious eye or painfully obtrusive to the smartass-chichi-scorning mind. Warner declares it theater without words; more accurate would be theater without purpose.

Especially offensive is the meretricious concept “Angel Project.” Two-bit movies and TV shows have lately been featuring angels in the hokiest, trashiest patent-medicine-mongering way: snake oil for the mindless mind. A society adrift, without moorings in genuine art, philosophy, history, or even (if you must) religion snatches at every nostrum: gurus, tea leaves, astrology, chat rooms, and white-winged guardians protecting you from mishaps. To be sure, there is one fallen angel, Asmodeus, who can take you on a flight and remove the roofs below, enabling you to see people’s hidden lives. This is what Deborah Warner cannot do; but real theater, with words, can and sometimes does.

I don’t know what Michael Cunningham’s novels are like (though I have a suspicion), but pretentiousness pullulates as they come out onscreen via David Hare in The Hours, and now onstage in Flesh and Blood, via Peter Gaitens. The play is crammed with pseudo-poetry and pseudo-profundity, and spiced with avant-garde technique. Characters, often unseen, utter odd little refrains, echo one another’s lines, speak over one another in endless fugues, revert to their frequently distant past, or effuse from the ocean bottom or from trees with whose roots they hope to merge.

Artsiness fulgurates. Characters take turns bemoaning their frustrations or looking at the unattainable perfection of the stars. But there is also violence and profuse onstage sex. In a particularly moving scene, we get simultaneously a homosexual blowjob, an interracial horizontal frolic, and a vertical quickie against a wall, while the mother of one participant in each copulation suffers gallantly downstage left.

As apparently usual with Cunningham, the happiest or most evolved characters are gay; indeed, the sharp-tongued and golden-hearted transvestite Cassandra is the most winning of all, played to the hilt by Jeff Weiss. There is passing humor interspersed with dysfunctional distress for heterosexual families, while victims of aids die with gentle resignation or in lyrical ecstasy. In Gaitens’s adaptation, the same actors play different ages over several decades, or different characters, with helpful dates and supertitles indicated by the text, which Doug Hughes’s otherwise meticulous direction ignores. Gaitens also plays (charmlessly) the son, Billy, who later finds happiness with Harry, one of several homosexual partners, all played charmingly by Peter Frechette. Jessica Hecht is annoyingly whiny as Billy’s elder sister, but Martha Plimpton is fine as the spacy younger sister. The others will do. But there is also the incomparable Cherry Jones as an unhappy wife, loving mother, faithful friend, and finally gay divorcée; she can bring such inwardness to the most standard role as to break your heart. If you can blot out enough of the rest, she can make a visit worthwhile.

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Guerre Is Hell