When the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival launched its ambitious Shakespeare Marathon nine years ago, promising to produce all the Bard's plays in one long cycle, I worried that the great plays would be trotted out first, leaving mediocrities for the middle and deservedly obscure works for the end.
Happily, my fears were unfounded. Plays of varying quality have intermingled throughout the marathon, and even the home stretch has some first-rate material to offer - such as "Henry V," now onstage as the 31st entry in the event. True, the summer's other Central Park production will be the relatively minor "Timon of Athens," but after the ever-popular "Henry V" it will seem like a change of pace rather than an also-ran.
Scholars regard "Henry V" as one of Shakespeare's most resonant and poetic history plays. More important, it has an excellent record of pleasing wide audiences - not only in theaters but at the movies, where Laurence Olivier directed it in 1945 and Kenneth Branagh did a remake in 1989. I far prefer Olivier's version, even though its rousingly heroic Henry is more conventional than the moody monarch of Branagh's picture.
The marathon's Henry is played by Andre Braugher, best known from TV's popular "Homicide: Life on the Street" but also a stage veteran with strong Shakespearian credentials.
Steering the king on a midway course between Olivier's showmanship and Branagh's introspection, he emphasizes both strong emotions and can-do competence. His character shows a remarkably complex personality while growing from callow youth to conquering hero.
Braugher is the main attraction, but the production itself also deserves a round of applause. Directed by festival newcomer Douglas Hughes, it begins with a gimmick - the Chorus role is shared by several performers, all wearing modern clothes. But it soon gets back to Elizabethan roots, with period costumes and no-nonsense staging that conveys the play's power with little interference or unneeded punctuation.
Adding an extra punch is expressive music by David Van Tieghem, a percussion wizard whose expertise extends to atmospheric synthesizer sounds. Praise also goes to the cast for its energy and conviction, to Neil Patel for his functional set design, and to Brian MacDevitt for a simple but surprisingly effective lighting scheme.
The performance I attended was called on account of rain shortly before Henry was to start wooing Katherine. While it was disappointing to miss Braugher's handling of the play's last scenes, the beginning of the precipitation actually enhanced his moving eulogy for the soldiers killed at Agincourt, draping the mournful scene in a somber mist that no stage designer could equal.
As often happens at the Delacorte Theater, where landscape and sky are integral parts of the environment, some credit for the show goes to Mother Nature for lending a hand.
*'Henry V' continues through July 14, and 'Timon of Athens' is scheduled for Aug. 6-Sept. 1.