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A little touch of Harry in the night

In heavy fighting in France, the English have taken a bridge. Bardolph, a common soldier and former barroom pal of King Henry V, then the wastrel Prince Hal, has been sentenced to death for stealing a gewgaw from a church. Henry enters and is briefed by the loyal Welshman Fluellen.

John Tufts, playing the king, calmly removes Bardolph's bonds and garrotes him to death in the center of the stage facing the audience. The strangling takes some time.

The act, which is not in the script, is presumably the invention of Joseph Haj, who directed the new production of Shakespeare's fanciful history of the Battle of Agincourt (no longbows or yeoman archers!) that opened Friday night at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan Stage.

The big question in "Henry V" is always whether we're seeing a patriotic celebration or a dark satire.

Haj comes down firmly on both sides of the question, and Shakespeare, being Shakespeare, provides directors the ammunition for both sides. But while the production reeks of heroic triumphalism, the garrote scene puts us face to face with the darker side of what Haj has called "this incredible guilt of leadership."

Henry's rectitude in making an example of Bardolph is open to considerable question. The king, now known affectionately as Harry, is a reformed rake who has just taken an immense bribe from the church to guard its wealth against the designs of Parliament, in return for which the Archbishop of Canterbury has constructed a dubious rationale for Henry's lame claim to the French throne.

A cynical masterpiece in not letting the facts get in the way of your conclusion, the archbishop's brief for an unnecessary war may remind you of President Bush wanting to link the 9/11 attacks to Saddam Hussein. If war is hell, Shakespeare seems to say, the convoluted arguments politicians use to justify it are like knocks on the door of the underworld.

Tufts, a jaunty battle scar etching a cheekbone, plays Henry as the outward embodiment of firm resolve, but inwardly he's troubled by his father's usurpation of the throne and murder of King Richard II.

Part of Henry's real reason for invading France is to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" and thus distract people from his shabby claim to the English throne, let alone the French one.

Like "As You Like It," which will round out the OSF's outdoor season opening weekend Sunday night, "Henry V" has little in the way of conventional plot. Henry schemes to invade France, rallies the troops, wins the battle and gets the girl (Princess Katherine of France, played by Brooke Parks).

As if to underscore the moral ambiguity of the play's world, Richard Hay's austere set is rendered in shades of gray that pulse and change in Justin Townsend's lights. Jan Chambers' ambiguously modern costumes (cargo pants, combat boots, vests, cloaks) are likewise somber, except for the vain French, who are strutting peacocks.

There's lots of sword-rattling and sweat and fog of war, although the action takes place off stage. The whole thing moves smartly forward as if propelled by Todd Baron's minimalist score, which is performed by a lone percussionist on the upper reaches of the Elizabethan stage.

When Tufts, who was Prince Hal in the OSF's recent "Henry V" parts one and two, delivers the king's St. Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), the audience is ready to pick up swords and follow him out the aisles, if they could wade trough the testosterone.

Haj finds a surprising amount of humor amid the gore, much of it at the expense of former Eastcheap rustics Bardolph, Nym and Pistol, whose leek-eating scene with Fluellen is a hoot.

Of course, the French are always good for laughs amid all the English chest-thumping. The scene in which Princess Katherine is tutored in English by her waiting woman is a frothy, language-mangling romp with the princess in a bubble bath.

Shakespeare created a character called the Chorus to deliver a prologue, introduce each act and speak a final epilogue. The Chorus uses elevated rhetoric to tell us that the stage cannot possible convey the grandeur of the epic that is its subject, lavishes praise on Henry and tells us in the end that all his gains will soon be lost.

Haj has the prologue delivered by the entire cast, then has a different actor (some of whom also double in other roles) play the Chorus in each act. The Chorus lends a note of meta-theater, reminding us we're watching a play, but spreading the part around diminishes the impact.

Tufts gives Henry a generally sympathetic complexity, although the production doesn't stress his penchant for being one of Shakespeare's great performance artists. If those who view Henry's arc as emblematic of the cost of political leadership are correct, "Henry V" is a dark view of politics indeed. And if Henry is a hero, he is a peculiar kind of hero.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Howard) assures Henry V (John Tufts) that there is no bar to his claim to France in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'Henry V.' - Photo courtesy of T. Charles Erickson