PROVO — At the Brigham Young University Duck Pond with tall, bald cypress trees creating a majestic backdrop, a large crowd gathered on blankets and camping chairs to see the Grassroots Shakespeare Company’s performance of Henry V. Paying homage to true, centuries-old Elizabethan theatre, there was no director, costume designer, stage manager, or any sort of crew aside from the fifteen performers who put on the show. The group prepared the entire play in just two short weeks, including rehearsals, gathering props and costumes, and preparing their musical numbers.
Ten of these fifteen were actors, the other five providing sound effects (Addison Radle) or instrumental music. Scott Robinson was on the drums, lead guitar was played by Robert Starks, bass guitar by Gary Argyle, and woodwinds by Jason Sullivan. Not only did they provide fun, upbeat prelude tunes, they also supplied matching undertones and overtures to the scenes performed by the Shakespearean thespians.
The Grassroots Shakespeare Company came equipped with their signature “shower curtain” set, several wooden beams with poles and colorful cloth hanging like drapes. Because there was no amphitheater or raised platform, they brought their own, made up of wooden planks and large barrels. A few steps on either side allowed the characters to use the grass beneath as well as the homemade platform as their stage, providing extra variety as they acted out their scenes. Ladders of some sort behind the curtains created an occasionally-used third tier for the actors and actresses to utilize, turning the simple set into quite a substantial spectacle.
Each performer played well their part, but there were a few I would like to note in particular. King Henry, the star of this historical drama, was portrayed by Brandon Bills. Bills was both a capable and convincing performer — out of all the actors, he was the most clear and articulate. I never questioned what he was saying nor did I lean in to better hear his lines. During his monologues, Bills emphasized the points his character was making both vocally and physically, with intonations reflective of the emotions he felt accompanied by the raising of a sword or moving around the scenery and even into the audience. In the fourth act, for example, King Henry threatening to kill one of the French soldiers, the anger and gusto bellowed from Bills, his rage emanating from his words and his facial expressions; this was a talented actor.
Katie Bennion played the roles of a French nobleman, a chorus, and Alice. Her spoken lines were also coherent in each of her parts, and her body language was hilarious and felicitous. In the third act’s fourth scene, Bennion was portraying Alice, maid to Princess Catherine of France (played by Olivia Ockey). The entire scene was performed in French (kudos to both Bennion and Ockey) wherein the maid attempted to teach the princess English words and phrases. Regardless of whether theater patrons spoke French, the performers’ body language and voice intonations were obviously hysterical. Bennion threw her hands up in the air when the princess could not remember certain words, and the look on her face said it all; Bennion was an expert in physical comedy.
The Grassroots Shakespeare Company also added a few twists to the show, providing humor for the modern audience. References to tennis matches and to the 1970s bohemian culture seemed to translate the Old English phrases into something more understandable and amusing. My favorite twist was the Duke of Burgundy character, played by Drake Hansen. A costume Hansen compiled himself included bell bottom jeans, sandals, necklaces, a flowing robe of sorts, and a headband at the top of his long, blonde hair. Hansen hilariously converted his role of “equal love” between the English and French royalty into something peculiarly reminiscent of Bob Marley’s “one love” motto. This interpretation of the character was wildly funny, and Hansen’s ability to play this role seemed almost intuitive rather than rehearsed.
Each of the actors were talented in their own regards, though it was difficult to hear what some of the characters were saying at certain points in time. I would highly recommend that attendees plan on coming early and seat themselves close to the stage, and that the majority of performers practice speaking their lines at a slightly higher volume so they can be more comprehensible.
The night began with Shakespeare’s original invitation to theatregoers to use their imaginations, which was perfectly befitting for the Grassroots Shakespeare Company. The ten actors effectively portrayed more than 40 historical characters and added their own humor and charm to the classic story of Henry V — a performance you won’t want to miss. Come prepared to cheer and to laugh and to use your imagination when the Grassroots Shakespeare Company comes to a Utah city near you.