British history gets the comic treatment in ‘Henry V’

British history gets the comic treatment in ‘Henry V’

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Shakespeare for the Masses brings "Henry V" to the stage this weekend. Pictured is Brian Ditchfield, left, and Mac Young in "Henry IV."

Long before the Godfather trilogy, there was the Shakespeare series of history plays — “Richard II,” “Henry IV” (parts one and two) and “Henry V.” And like the Francis Ford Coppola classics, the Henry/Richard tetralogy deals with a dynasty grappling with the issues of power and, after the first installment, the focus switches from the patriarch to the son.

However, unlike the hugely successful movie franchise, Shakespeare’s final episode is hardly a dud. “Henry V,” which will be presented this weekend as part of the The Vineyard Playhouse’s Shakespeare for the Masses series, is full of action and as equally compelling as the others.

Previously, the Shakespeare for the Masses team presented the three earlier plays as a composite and the co-directors are looking forward to checking in on the younger Henry (known as Prince Hal) to find out how he’s mended his errant ways.

“When we did ‘The Triple Crown’ in April 2010, that show ended with Mac Young as Prince Hal being crowned King Henry V,” said one of the two adaptation collaborators, Nicole Galland. “And now, three and a half years later, we’re finally getting a chance to revisit the character, with the same actor, and we’re really happy about that.”

Chelsea McCarthy and Ms. Galland have been entertaining — and educating — Vineyard audiences for the past six years with Shakespeare for the Masses, which is produced by M.J. Bruder Munafo and The Vineyard Playhouse. During the off-season, the two women present a handful of productions of condensed, enhanced, and narrated versions of the Bard’s plays — focusing on the tragedies and histories in particular.

“The tragedies are much funnier for us,” Ms. McCarthy said. “They’re much easier to make funny and ridiculous. The scenes are so strong. The emotions are so dramatic. For Shakespeare for the Masses, those emotions and themes are so huge we can play to the silly.”

The two collaborators found Henry a perfect vehicle for their unique brand of entertainment. “We were surprised when we started working on it that it was totally hysterical,” Ms. McCarthy continued. “It’s not a funny story, but we couldn’t stop laughing. It’s so perfect. It was tailor-made for us.

Ms. Galland, who is currently living in Los Angeles, concurred: “Chelsea and I did the rewrite via Skype in a series of sessions, which was so much fun. We had, in particular, possibly the biggest laughing fit of our partnership over one very silly line of the narrator’s.”

The play, which the team condensed to just under an hour, deals with young Henry’s successful conquest of France. “Nicki and I love to look up the factual events,” said Ms. McCarthy, noting that contemporary audiences would have been familiar with the history. “We tossed some of those in.” Included in the additional history is a summation at the end of the play, outlining the fates of the key players.

The two collaborators, both serious Shakespearephiles, are very earnest about not changing any of the language or the structure of the works. “Because neither of us is brave enough to do any serious cutting, we trim it down and shape it,” Ms. McCarthy said. “One of the things that happened in Shakespeare’s day is that the shows were playing to an interactive audience. People would be drinking, talking, throwing rotten fruit, so he had to repeat some of the important plot points or ideas. We picked our favorite versions of the information.”

One of the things that makes Shakespeare for the Masses productions so fun and easy to digest is that a narrator (called the Folio) aids in the editing by explaining much of the action and throwing in some helpful historical information.

Generally Ms. Galland plays the Folio, but she won’t be on the Island this time around. “Chelsea will be the narrator, which is going to rock,” Ms. Galland said. “I’m simultaneously a little envious of her for getting to do the narrator and very envious of the audience for getting to see her do the narrator.”

“Henry V” includes some of the most famous of Shakespeare’s speeches — many of which are pages long. “The thing I really love about this play is that it shows Henry V as this amazing philosopher /deep thinker/war hero,” said Ms. McCarthy. “He’s in every aspect a king. He does a lot of speechifying and the speeches are incredibly well-written, but there are pages and pages of him talking and thinking — turning things over in his mind. The language is so gorgeous. That’s where it gets hard: we don’t want to cut a single word of the language, but we wouldn’t be doing anyone a service by boring people.”

Despite the challenge of trimming, the play features a good deal of variety. “It’s a really nice blend of the courtly scenes in both England and France and the pub life of the day-to-day commoners,” Ms. McCarthy continued. And it also offers many opportunities for humor through an international cast of characters, including an Irishman, a Scot, and a Welshman, all written to reflect their own accents and vernacular. Luckily, the current cast (many of whom are Shakespeare for the Masses regulars) includes a native of Wales — Peter Stray — to handle the trickiest of the accents.

Rounding out the cast are Anna Yukevich, Scott Barrow, Amy Sabin, Alexandra London-Thompson, Leslie Stark, Elizabeth Hartford, and newcomer Adam Petkus.

Many of the players were involved in this past summer’s production of “Henry IV” at the Tisbury Amphitheater, but some, like Mr. Barrow, who directed that show, have moved from behind the scenes to the stage and others are taking on different roles.

“What’s cool is getting to work with the same people, but we’ve completely mixed up everybody’s parts,” Ms. McCarthy said.

Although they’re getting a somewhat later start than in past years, Ms. McCarthy promises that the series will continue through the off-season. When, and which plays, will depend on the availability of the collaborators and actors, but Ms. McCarthy says there should be at least two more productions

“Our original mission statement was to do all of the Shakespeare plays, including those that no one has ever seen,” she continued. “It’s been as much for my own benefit as for anyone else who might be enjoying it. I wasn’t familiar with some of these plays. I’m a member of the masses myself.”

“Henry V” presented by Shakespeare for the Masses, Saturday, Dec. 28, 7 pm; Sunday, Dec. 29, 2 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Free, donations welcome.