The Shiva Theater at the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 13, free with advance tickets
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother,” King Henry V says in the fourth act of William Shakespeare’s history play. But it’s a sister who leads the charge in the Public Theater’s Mobile Unit adaptation. From March 29 to April 21, the Mobile Unit took to the road, fulfilling Joe Papp’s mandate to bring free Shakespeare to the people, presenting Henry V at such locations as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan, the Roy Wilkins Recreation Center in Queens, the Brownsville Recreation Center in Brooklyn, the Williamsbridge Oval Recreation Center in the Bronx, and Faber Park Field House in Staten Island as well as women’s prisons and homeless shelters. It’s now back home at the Public’s Shiva Theater, where it continues — for free — through May 13. Two-time Obie winner Robert O’Hara’s production features nine actors in more than two dozen roles, but what makes this version unforgettable is a phenomenal performance by Zenzi Williams as the monarch who attacks France after being mocked with a gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin (Michael Bradley Cohen), among other reasons. As Henry, she dominates the small, intimate stage at the Shiva, where the audience sits in three rising rows on all four sides of a central square area, the only props a carpet that is half Union Jack, half fleur-de-lys, and a black throne on wheels. (The set design is by Tony winner Clint Ramos, who also did the costumes.) Williams (The Crucible, The Homecoming Queen) delivers a bold, impassioned interpretation with a spectacular grasp of Shakespeare’s language and meter, worthy of such Harry predecessors as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Timothy Dalton. Interestingly, everyone auditioning for the play read the same lines from two characters, not knowing which role they would get; after the show, Williams admitted that she was shocked when O’Hara told her that she was going to be the king. But as thrilling as it is for the Shiva Theater audience to see a strong black woman with a nose ring playing Henry V, it is almost impossible to imagine how empowering it must have been to women in prison and homeless shelters and underprivileged children who have never experienced Shakespeare before.
The French monarchy is played almost exclusively for laughs by the talented cast, with very silly buffoonery by Joe Tapper as the goofy king, Cohen as the twee Dauphin, and Carolyn Kettig as Princess Katharine, who brings down the house when Alice (Kim Wong) teaches her the English names of various body parts. Mobile Unit veteran David Ryan Smith is superb as both the Duke of Exeter and the Governor of Harfleur, Cohen is riotous as a slow-moving French ambassador, Ariel Shafir is solid as the Earl of Westmoreland and a constable, and Patrice Johnson has a “Bye, Felicia” moment as the gruff Montjoy; Kettig, Leland Flower, and Wong portray the treasonous trio of the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Northumberland knight Thomas Grey. The play is stripped down to 105 minutes, with the lights on the whole time to provide intimacy between the cast and the audience; the characters regularly involve the crowd, pointing at specific people, asking rhetorical questions, and even giving one woman a key prop to hold. (Be sure to get to the theater early, when the actors stroll about, ready to talk to you about whatever you want.) Everyone is dressed in black; red or blue sashes, gloves, and/or hats identify them as either British or French. (The two tennis balls offered to Henry are also blue, innuendo intended.) In addition, there are several moments of stylized, almost avant-garde movement (including the Battle of Agincourt scene) set to original music by Elisheba Ittoop. Even with all the low comedy, dance, and audience involvement, O’Hara (Bootycandy, In the Continuum) hits on the key elements and themes of the play — power, war, patriotism, leadership — while turning another one, masculinity, inside out and upside down by casting the amazing Williams in the title role.