Royal Broil 

This production of Henry V may lead Shakespeare fans to fear that they were enamored of an ass.

Life is full of pipe dreams waiting to burst. How can any red-blooded Anglophile resist the manly notion of experiencing Shakespeare's boys-at-war epic Henry V in the great outdoors, as the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival offers it? In the regal courtyard behind Mather Mansion on the Case Western Reserve campus, there are noble turrets with more Tudor trim than the entire cast of The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Tim Perfect, executive director of the festival, is a passionate Ali Baba of the theater, with flaming red beard and the implacable swash of a lusty buccaneer. He has sent out reams of press material, summoning the noble aesthetes that lie dormant in our town's local watering holes, urging them to eschew the tinseled comforts of air-conditioned civic centers ("Sit on your blankets... Return to the spirit in which these plays were originally performed, at the speed of thought, with natural light and contemporary costumes."). In short, it's a good chance to reclaim paradise lost, an opportunity to don a metaphorical codpiece and return to Elizabethan days of yore.

The catch, or rub, as they used to say, is that Perfect's less-than-perfect hour-and-forty-five-minute condensation of good King Henry did not make its debut in England's gentle climate but rather in the merciless glare of a wickedly hot spring in Cleveland. The emerald grass was cooked to a prickly straw, and nature itself became a distraction.

This unwieldy concoction of Bowery Boys slapstick and NRA bravado, high-spirited but unfocused collegiate high jinks, and indiscriminate cross-gender team switching renders this Henry incomprehensible to a neophyte. It's perky, high-spirited, laden with attitude, and only half audible. With its jungle-fatigue-trenchcoat chic, it's more akin to an advertising campaign for the Gap than the victories of a king or the magical evocations of a playwright.

This production vitiates Shakespeare's jingoism. The most impressive aspect of the pageant is amazement at how the actors don't sweat in their black trenchcoats. The fetid odor of a flopped stunt permeates the atmosphere, bringing to mind The Sound of Music performed in a Turkish bath or Swan Lake danced on the Amazon. The audience feels so distant from the characters, it's as though they are watching holograms.

The players are energetic but, for the most part, just shooting blanks. Brian Breth poses and preens and projects his famous St. Crispin speech as though rehearsing for elocution class. His warrior king conducts himself like a Princeton boy on a photo shoot. This Henry is more Aldrich than Tudor, and he really comes to life only when wooing his French prom queen, Catherine.

What's more, the multicast players are overburdened. "Who Am I This Time?" Jay Kim, for instance, makes a provocative punk chorus, then becomes lost at sea when asked to take on the French king. He might as well be essaying Juliet. John Lynch and Allen Branstein manage to stand out of the blur as an assortment of scruffy rogues. Erin Meyers makes Catherine the ideal princess-next-door. Brendan Bruce as the Dauphin and Ben Goldman as Fluellen both whip up a certain Byronic grandeur in their stylish black turtlenecks.

One has to admire Perfect and Company for their egalitarian efforts to bring Shakespeare to the masses, but the big question is, Who is going to save the masses from this brand of Shakespeare?

Henry V, through July 11 at Case Western Reserve University's Mather Memorial Quad, corner of Ford Drive and Bellflower Road, 216-732-3311.

More by Keith A. Joseph

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