To celebrate the inaugural opening night of its existence, New Fortune Theatre recruited bagpipe players in full Scottish regalia to play outside ion theatre’s BLKBOX space in Hillcrest, which at least for now will serve as the fledgling company’s home. The bagpipers were also celebrating St. Crispin’s Day, which is not only Oct. 25 (New Fortune’s opening night) but also directly connected to Henry V, the evening’s Shakespearean production. (Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech is one of the most famous in all the Bard’s histories).
New Fortune’s Henry V is co-directed (with Matthew Henerson) by Richard Baird, who also stars in the titular role. The accomplished, baritone-voiced actor is the new company’s artistic director. Henry V is a rambling historical vehicle rife with battlefield bloodshed and righteous orations from the English king who lusts to add France to his realm. That Baird and Henerson are able to stage a play with a cast of 14 in ion’s compact space and do so with minimalist set pieces is quite an achievement. Somehow the combat scenes, aided by booming sound effects, are plausible, and Henry’s army, which includes New Fortune associate artistic director Matt Thompson, scatter back and forth with startling precision.
The play is overlong (exceeding three hours, with intermission) and the subplots anchored by comic characters Pistol (John Tessmer) and Mistress Quickly (Dana Hooley) just slow everything down. But Baird is commanding as the oft-inspirational king, in particular in Act 2 when we are treated to the moving St. Crispin’s Day “band of brothers” speech. Amanda Schaar (New Fortune’s managing director) shines in a hilarious lost-in-translation scene with Hooley (in a different role), and as the play’s recurring narrator, Jessica John is charming and, if you know John’s work around town, charismatic as ever.
Even with its long-windedness, Henry V is a diverting picture of 15th-century imperialism and royal ambition, and the production is a showcase for Baird, for whom the mission of the new theater company is “world class productions of original classics.” You can’t get any more ambitious than “world-class.” Here’s hoping New Fortune finds its place on the local theater landscape.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.