All-female “Henry V” updates classic, provokes debate

Reviewed by Kellie Powell

The Binghamton University Theatre Department recently presented an all-female version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” directed by visiting assistant professor Michael F. Toomey. Countless directors have attempted to “shake up Shakespeare” by changing time periods and locations, using color-blind casting and experimenting with gender roles, usually with mixed results — and this production is no exception. “Henry V,” which is probably most famous for King Henry’s “band of brothers” speech, is a fairly macho play. To their credit, rather than impersonating men, members of BU’s all-female cast played characters — kings, soldiers, drunks and thieves — who happened to be men. In doing so, they were able to portray both the vulnerability that modern men are rarely allowed to display publicly and the bloodthirsty ambition that even modern women are discouraged from expressing.
The actresses ably demonstrated that, as Sophocles wrote in “Electra,” “There is war in women, too.” Most notable was the performance of Rose-Emma Lunderman, who portrayed the gallant, but troubled, Henry. Her intensity never faltered in an incredibly demanding and varied role. Lunderman was a delight to watch, and the king’s scenes were compelling and visceral.
Unfortunately, most of the other scenes fell flat in comparison. Henry’s enemies, the French royalty, were apparently instructed to pretend to be talking horses. This choice seemed to puzzle most of the audience. More importantly, Henry’s eventual triumph carried considerably less weight, since the French were portrayed as figures of mockery, rather than fear.
The thieving and womanizing soldiers who populated the secondary storyline were over-the-top clowns, and their ridiculous antics failed to amuse. The fight choreography was neither realistic nor stylized and could most accurately be described as half-hearted.
The highly theatrical chorus was led by Nj Agwuna, who has an absolutely beautiful voice and a very commanding presence. Molly Adams-Toomey also was impressive as Montjoy, a French messenger whose commitment and realism stood out in a play filled with caricatures.
Ultimately, what strained the suspension of disbelief was not that women were playing men but that one director could take two such conflicting approaches to a single play.
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