‘Henry V’ realized with more than just imaginary forces
It is the final play from William Shakespeare’s historical tetraology of British kings, and the most oft-quoted. At the time of this writing, the Quasi Productions version is scheduled to open in less than a week; its dedicated band of players and crew members moved into their new performance space at Helfaer Theatre on Marquette University grounds only two days ago.
When I visit, the players are running through an early tech rehearsal — the crew is working with lights, sound, and wardrobe for the first time. On one part of the stage, actress Angela Iannone tries on different costume pieces for the director Todd Denning. Actor and producer Tom Reed dons a leathery vest, giving him a warrior-like quality. Actors James Fletcher and Bryce Lord stand nearby in ornate priest-like overgarments.
Denning still sports a long, thin beard that looks like a vine swinging from his face — a remainder from the character he played in How I Became a Pirate, the well-regarded production at First Stage Children’s Theater that just finished its run. He takes a question from the cast about a candle issue, then tells everyone to go to final positions. It’s dark, and smoke fills the playing area. The director gives the cast details about timing for extinguishing the candles, and the cue-writing process begins.
Tech rehearsals can be odious for cast and crew; the precise timing of the actors’ movements and dialogue with sound and lighting cues can be long, tedious and sometimes tension-filled. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. This production of Henry V grew not only out of a collective desire to make a worthy theatrical presentation, but from a grim sense of incompletion.
Reed says that after Milwaukee Shakespeare closed, there was a kind of melancholic sigh all over the theatre community. MS had previously produced Henry IV parts 1 and 2, in which Reed was featured as an actor. As a response, he says — with a labored exhale — he expressed his wish to stage Henry V to Brian Miracle and they began to talk about who would direct. Todd Denning seemed like an obvious choice; he was supposed to take part in the MS planned production of Henry V as an actor and fight choreographer, plus Reed knew him as a co-worker at other theatres. Despite not knowing where the play would be performed or how they would pull it off, Henry V was on its way to realization.
In the opening of Henry V, there’s a speech from a ‘Chorus’ character (played by Angela Iannone) that asks the audience to imagine the stage as a French countryside and informs them that players are going to put on a production. It’s intended to look simple, like a poor band of players putting on a traveling show. Basic boots and jeans make up the costumes, and props like parchment paper come from different time periods. The production is very low budget, but Reed believes this is the way Shakespeare intended it.
“It’s been a long time since anybody’s done bare bones Shakespeare, letting the acted words do most of the work,” Reed says.
Although the production will of course be listed as a Quasi Productions show, Reed and Denning are adamant about how much the Milwaukee theatre community helped to make this show work in the hopes of bringing quality to the public. Marquette University donated the theatre space, allowing some funds for Quasi to pay its actors. First Stage provided rehearsal space, and Milwaukee Repertory donated some swords and costume pieces.
“It’s been a testament to a lot of people doing a lot of work with a lot of different skill sets pulling together and putting in a lot of hours,” says Denning. “The Milwaukee theatre community has been incredibly supportive, we’ve called in numerous favors, and without the effort of all the people involved and without the generosity and support of theater artists and theatre organizations we wouldn’t be able to do this. So it’s really just a testament to the community and their help and support to make this happen, so I’m grateful to them.”
Every actor and crew had “a finger in something else” besides just acting or directing or designing. Set Designer Tim Linn is also acting in the show. Lighting Designer Jason Fassl is completely donating his time. Even Tom Reed himself, is pulling quadruple duty by doing the costumes and the props.
“I believe in keeping art in the hands of the artists,” Reed says.
Based on the positive energy billowing around the theatre, it’s safe to think that’s how quality theatre should continue to be made. There’s a single spotlight on Iannone at center stage. She wears a long, dusty black leather coat with boots and rattles off some lines as she walks through blocking positions. Fassl writes lighting cues with Denning. There’s smoke in the air. A light goes out. Voices murmur in the dark over the click-clacking of the lighting board.
“It’s tech, so [it’s] hurry up and wait,” Denning says to the cast.
Henry V runs now until June 7 at Halfaer Theater (525 North 13th Street, Milwaukee WI) at Marquette University. For more information and ticketing call 800.838.3006 or visit www.quasi-productions.com
Read Matt Konkel’s review here.