Los Angeles Theater Review: HENRY V (Porters of Hellsgate in North Hollywood)

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by Jason Rohrer on February 17, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

A HAPPY FEW, A HAPPY MANY

Just about every Shakespeare production runs the risk of getting a packed house of high school students at least one performance in the run.  This situation is always touch-and-go.  On a bare black stage with a few chairs, as the Porters of Hellsgate often serve up their war stories, there is little of spectacle outside the actors themselves.  At worst, Shakespeare can bore a roomful of kids to disruption, texting and gossiping and running in the aisles.  But the Porters held a predominantly female, under-18 audience in the palm of its hand for two and a half hours at its Henry V opening on Saturday.  This, not in the seasoned second week but opening night, is an impressive coup involving multiple successful functions:

Leon Russom as Chorus in Porters of Hellsgate's production of HENRY V.

  • the casting of Leon Russom as the Chorus, who sets the scene and catches us up before each act and generally places us in the story.  This actor could not lose an audience if he were blindfolded and spun around three times.  Leon Russom could get an audience up Everest in an ice storm.  His matter-of-fact, intimate narration keeps the action clear, the language human, the stakes high.  (He also, and with efficient grace as always, plays a number of other characters.)

Charles Pasternak goes into the breach in Porters of Hellsgate's production of HENRY V.

  • director Charles Pasternak’s attention to stage picture through light and movement post-intermission, at that crucial time when a modern audience really starts to drift.  He is of course assisted in this by William Shakespeare, who provides one of his most efficient and dynamic travelogues, action-heavy especially in the final acts.

Charles Pasternak and the English Court in Porters of Hellsgate's production of HENRY V.

  • the number of matinee-idol young men in this cast (beginning with heartthrobs Alex Parker, as the Dauphin, and director Pasternak, who stars as a virile and teensy-bit-vulnerable Harry Plantagenet).  Add to this the number of excellent performances by women, several playing men.  It cannot be said that those high school girls were underserved by this production.  Vicariously, they got to have their beefcake and be it, too.

It’s a simple story: the boy king of England whips up an army and heads across the channel to claim the throne of France.  He’s outnumbered and outmatched by the enemy.  His soldiers are thieves and drunks and children.  His friends plot against him.  And yet his enemy is effete, while he is hungry and desperate and charming.  And young: it’s a passionate, muscular script, full of physical scenes and warlike speeches.  It’s a play made for the Porters’ strengths.

Charles Pasternak in Porters of Hellsgate's production of HENRY VThe production’s presentational touchstone seems to be taken from the Chorus’s apology for the “unworthy scaffold” and “four or five most vile and ragged foils” that a theater provides instead of the thrill of real war.  A couple of gestures attest to this inconsistent aesthetic: most of the large cast is left onstage the entire show, if not acting then sitting or standing on the perimeter, actors watching their friends’ work.  And there’s a nice, if rather late, interplay with Timothy Portnoy when Russom transitions from playing Chorus to playing the ill-fated Bardolph – just two entertainers for a moment, getting into character before an audience.  That’s it; the rest of the time the show seems staged in a void, with minimal lighting (Sterling Hall), primitive sound design (Nick Neidorf), and mostly sash-over-skivvies costumes (Jessica Pasternak).  And if the Porters can be cavalier with their commitment to style, it also must be said that this Henry V‘s first couple of acts are not as thoughtfully staged with regard to theme and suspense as the finish.  Of course, this is preferable to the very common reverse effect, in which plays begin well but peter out.

Charles Pasternak in Porters of Hellsgate's production of HENRY V.Pasternak’s puissant king has a questionable primary characteristic: hitting his terminal consonants too hard.  But this Harry is appropriately determined, and he is never dull to watch.  The director’s work with the other actors is exemplary.  Cynthia Beckert’s Fluellen is as fully realized and credibly belligerent a Welsh captain as one could wish; as Katharine and Alice, Eliza Kiss and Madeline Marie delight in multiple languages; Christine Sage’s nimble, plucky Boy is not merely sweet and endearing, a necessity given the motivational hay Harry makes of the boy’s death in battle: she also plays him as a perfect foil for the king’s youthful aspirations. Other standouts include Ted Barton, channeling Paul Smith as Exeter the enforcer; Matt Calloway, delivering a sharp, impatient Constable; and Michael Mitchell Hoag, reaching in from way out in spear carrier territory to offer a hilarious one-scene bit as Jamy, the blithely unintelligible Scot.  It’s a typical moment in this, a solid production with flashes of heavenly invention, and much my favorite offering from this company.

photos by Rob Cunliffe

Henry V
Porters of Hellsgate
Whitmore Theatre in North Hollywood
scheduled to end on March 22, 2014
EXTENDED through March 29, 2014
for tickets, visit www.PortersHenryV.BrownPaperTickets.com
to reserve, call (818) 325-2055 or email portersofhellsgate@gmail.com
for more info, visit www.portersofhellsgate.com

{ 1 comment }

THop February 17, 2014 at 12:45 pm

Would go to see Leon Russom in anything.

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