Thaddeus Phillips has re-engineered William Shakespeare's Henry V, but not in the typical manner of eliminating characters and conflating subplots.
Rather, Phillips has recast entire nations in Henry 5: Live From Times Square, which arrives this evening for a three-night stay at Manitou Art Theater. Playing 15th-century England is the United States; co-starring as France, is Iraq. And filling in parts large and small are pliable GI Joe action figures, plastic army men and props ranging from Perrier bottles (those Frenchies!) to pop songs and film clips (those postmodernists!).
Confused? Well, that's because even without a contemporary setting, Henry V is rather confusing. However, playwright-star Phillips -- a Colorado College alum who often works with Denver's Buntport Theater -- does an admirable job of unraveling the plot while poking fun at Shakespeare's redundancies.
For those whose memory of Shakespeare has lapsed, Henry V is the tale of a war goaded into existence by The Archbishop of Canterbury. The Church of England fears losing its power, the King wants to sure his up by laying claim to what he sees as his territory in France. The French respond by sending tennis balls (those Frenchies!). War soon escalates, as does a domestic assassination plot against the King.
Phillips said he originally wanted to set the play in a child's bedroom, but a rejected grant and the war in Iraq found him going in a different direction.
Abetted by pliable action figures, an overhead projector, shadow puppetry, and video footage of New York and Baghdad, Phillips connects Shakespeare's drama of a questionable war to a more contemporary armed conflict that's no less contentious (if not in Colorado Springs, then elsewhere).
"The reason for Henry V going to war and for the war in Iraq are basically the same." Phillips says. "It's really interesting."
That one person can portray a cast that can top 50 is often more intriguing than the story itself. Phillips has previously toyed with The Bard by setting The Tempest in a kiddie pool. He says the challenge of visualizing so many different scenes is his prime inspiration, though he's helped out here by director Tatiana Mallarino.
Narrating the play is a jingoistic Times Square street vendor who hawks Iraqi war tchotchtkes. As a means of justifying the war, the vendor decides to update Henry V.
This is where the text comes in handy, as Shakespeare's play is more than a little ambiguous regarding the nature of war. Previously, Henry V has been used (by Lawrence Olivier in 1944) as a pro-war paean as well as an anti-war statement (by Kenneth Branagh in his late '80s film version.)
Phillips' obsession with soldiers being deployed as cheap pawns by the powerful is evidenced through the use of plastic toy soldiers and a few well-known pieces of pop culture whose politics have been similarly maligned. Examples include Bruce Springsteen's anti-war anthem Born in The USA, which was lauded by Reagan Republicans, and Francis Ford Coppola's biopic, Patton.
Phillips' ability to exploit video, props and sound is astonishing, in a scrappy sort of McGuyveresque fashion. It will no doubt delight those interested in experimental theater as well as Shakespeare fans. Or at least those who can handle some radical revisionism.
-- John Dicker
capsule Henry 5: Live From Times Square
Written and performed by Thaddeus Phillips
Thurs.-Sat., Dec. 11-13, 8 p.m.
Manitou Art Theater 515 Manitou Ave.