I am embarrassed to admit that I’d never seen a performance by Gorilla Rep until last Wednesday. I knew about them, of course- they’re in their 15th season of doing free, classical theatre in New York City parks. Their work was certainly more accessible to me when I lived in Manhattan. But I took three subways, and got to Riverside Park to see their latest production of “Henry V.”
I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare in my life, both live and on film. My senior thesis in college was “Actors’ Interpretations of Hamlet,” with a slight bending of the thesis to be able to include the E. Gordon Craig/Stanislavski production at the Moscow Art Theatre. I saw the “Henry V” that the Public did a few years ago. I saw a “Measure for Measure” at the Riverside Theatre (which is located in an Iowa City park; but it’s basically an amphitheatre with sides to it, capped by an Elizabethan stage).
I was a little leery of seeing a production of “Henry V” with the country at war. There’s always a chance that some overly enthusiastic director will go crazy trying to bend Shakespeare to his will be making it all pro-war (which I don’t believe it is) or all anti-war (which it is decidedly not). I need not have worried.
Christopher Sanderson’s direction is by far the best I’ve seen of a Shakespeare play in ages. You are draw into the action so quickly, and held there the whole time. The changes in location (the audience follows the actors to various parts of a fenced section of the park) don’t stop the action, they pull you along with it. At the same time, no matter how close you get to the actors, you never get that uncomfortable “oh, my God, it’s audience participation waiting to happen” feeling, nor that your presence or space is somehow intruding on theirs. There is some direct address, but not too much. Sanderson uses the natural world- a hill, trees, the setting of the sun (the fireflies add a great deal, but I assume he can’t take credit for them)- very specifically and to great effect. And it didn’t come over me gradually- I think I smiled all the way through the prologue (“O, for a muse of fire”), and not just because I had to learn it in school.
The performances ranged from great to okay. The comedic roles were all funny (which is key, and I have seen them not bee very funny at all). Ru-Chen and Frances You Sanderson as Alice and Katherine were ebullient, and in the last scene, touching, as Alice and Katherine, And it’s difficult to do that well, particularly in French. I had a very difficult time understanding the actor who played the King of France, but he brought such great enthusiasm and energy to his role. Jacob Knoll played the Prologue, Chorus and Epilogue, and he was absolutely riveting. I wish I’d seen his Hamlet last May. I understand why there was no intermission, but at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the last half hour was a bit of a haul. I wasn’t bored, I just needed to stretch.
So if you hurry, you can still make it to Riverside Park by 8PM tonight for the final performance of “Henry V.”