Diana Coates commands the stage as First Folio's conquering 'Henry V'

  • Diana Coates delivers a commanding performance as the titular monarch in First Folio Theatre's "Henry V."

    Diana Coates delivers a commanding performance as the titular monarch in First Folio Theatre's "Henry V." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

  • On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, a disguised King Henry (Diana Coates), center, talks freely with soldiers Michael Williams (Arielle Leverett), left, and John Bates (Austyn Williamson) in First Folio Theatre's "Henry V."

    On the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, a disguised King Henry (Diana Coates), center, talks freely with soldiers Michael Williams (Arielle Leverett), left, and John Bates (Austyn Williamson) in First Folio Theatre's "Henry V." Courtesy of Tom McGrath

 
 
Updated 7/18/2019 10:52 AM

"Henry V" -- ★ ★ ★

Agreeing to direct William Shakespeare's "Henry V" for First Folio Theatre, Hayley Rice had one condition: that Diana Coates would play the lead.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

It didn't take much to convince her father, First Folio executive director David Rice. Familiar with Coates from her work with First Folio and from her performance as Henry in Babes With Blades' 2017 production of the play, David Rice immediately agreed.

They chose wisely, as Coates' performance in the outdoor production demonstrates. Her authoritative portrayal of England's sovereign/soldier -- who defeated the French at Agincourt in 1415 with his outnumbered army -- propels First Folio's production.

And it should. In Shakespeare's version of the newly crowned monarch's efforts to conquer France, Henry dominates every scene. Present, he's the center of attention. Absent, he inhabits most characters' thoughts.

Henry (Diana Coates), right, battles the Constable of France (Derek Jeck) at the decisive Battle of Agincourt in "Henry V," running through Aug. 18 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.
Henry (Diana Coates), right, battles the Constable of France (Derek Jeck) at the decisive Battle of Agincourt in "Henry V," running through Aug. 18 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath
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But the true test of anyone playing Henry has to do with how convincingly he or she ignites in the king's followers (and by extension the audience) the loyalty and fervor that inspires them to follow him into battle and even to their deaths.

Coates' Henry incites such zeal, which Hayley Rice amplifies by staging Henry's rousing "once more unto the breach" exhortation surrounded by the outdoor audience, transforming members into the "band of brothers" the king will laud a few scenes later in his St. Crispin's Day speech. (Coates' effortless delivery makes the impassioned call-to-arms feel as if she improvised it on the spot.)

Fluent in Shakespeare's language and skilled with a broadsword, Coates cuts a commanding presence.

Not every cast member is as adept, but several stand out, including Robert McLean as Henry's loyal adviser, the Duke of Exeter. Like most of the actors, McLean takes on multiple roles. In a clever juxtaposition of the noble and the base, McLean also plays Mistress Quickly, friend of the late Sir John Falstaff, wife of Pistol and possibly madam in a house of prostitution.

Onetime companions of the former Prince Hal -- Nym (Shane Richlen), left, Bardolph (Derek Jeck) and Pistol (Sean Sinitski) -- squabble before setting off for battle in William Shakespeare's "Henry V" for First Folio Theatre.
Onetime companions of the former Prince Hal -- Nym (Shane Richlen), left, Bardolph (Derek Jeck) and Pistol (Sean Sinitski) -- squabble before setting off for battle in William Shakespeare's "Henry V" for First Folio Theatre. - Courtesy of Tom McGrath
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Further examples of Rice's canny casting include Sophie Scanlon's spiky, splenetic Dauphin who underestimates Henry to France's detriment. Scanlon also plays the Dauphin's playful sister Katherine, who Henry awkwardly but successfully woos in the play's closing moments. Sean Sinitski, who also plays the King of France, is deliciously corrupt as the sharp-tongued thief Pistol who -- with fellow scoundrel-soldiers Bardolph (Derek Jeck) and Nym (Shane Richlen) -- uses combat to cover up criminal activity.

Morgan Manasa is the stalwart Fluellen, a proud Welshman and captain in Henry's army, and Lydia Berger Gray plays the Chorus, who Rice conceives as an overly ebullient tour guide leading camera-toting, souvenir-shopping vacationers on a sightseeing trip to historic European sites.

Rice's decision to frame the play in such a way sets up nicely her deliberately humorous "Henry V," which commences with Mark Lancaster's Bishop of Canterbury delivering a comically tortured explanation of Henry's right to the French throne. Some pacing could be quicker, but for the most part, the comic scenes -- especially those between the three rogues and the boy (Esther Fishbein) who serves them -- work.

Rachel Flesher choreographed the rousing combat scenes in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "Henry V."
Rachel Flesher choreographed the rousing combat scenes in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "Henry V." - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

Rice also uses the same characters to portray the poignancy of soldiers going off to war. As the thieves bid farewell to McLean's Quickly, Fishbein's youngster returns for an emotional hug, a final bit of comfort before he marches into battle, whose scenes are vigorously choreographed by Rachel Flesher.

The problem inherent in "Henry V" is how to reconcile the titular character's courage, intellect and wit with his offhand brutality, reflected in his order to kill French prisoners issued before he learns the French murdered the boys guarding army supplies. To her credit, Rice doesn't alter the sequence of events. Instead, Coates' Henry issues the order almost as an aside. Still, it remains the play's most troubling moment.

As for the gender and race-conscious casting, it's rooted in the theater's commitment to reflect its audience and its community, which David Rice explained two years ago after some audience members objected to same-sex and interracial couples featured in First Folio's "As You Like It."

Coates playing the titular monarch symbolizes women and people of color -- long denied access to political power -- stepping up to claim it. And claim it she does.

Victorious in battle, King Henry (Diana Coates), left, woos Katherine (Sophie Scanlon) in First Folio Theatre's "Henry V."
Victorious in battle, King Henry (Diana Coates), left, woos Katherine (Sophie Scanlon) in First Folio Theatre's "Henry V." - Courtesy of Tom McGrath

"You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion," Henry explains to Katherine, his future bride. "We are the makers of manners. And the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults."

So a new era begins.

• • •

Location: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org

Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday through Aug. 18

Running time: About 2 hours, 30 minutes with intermission

Tickets: $29-$44

Parking: Free parking available on the estate grounds

Rating: For teens and older; includes stage combat

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