When it doesn't work, we call it a gimmick—a conceit, design or technology that draws attention to itself at the expense of the work it serves. We've seen our share over the years: an unblinking, stage-wide eye suspended over a lake of fire, more suitable to a modern art museum than as a backdrop for Ibsen; a show where children are cast as adults, and vice versa. Not to mention the human shadow puppetry and base hucksterism of Pilobolus.
So when Fight or Flight, a New York-based troupe of self-styled aerial theatricals, collaborated with Burning Coal Theatre on Shakespeare, we were inclined to skepticism. What artistic mileage could eight performers get out of five braces swinging above stage?
The answer: enough mileage to qualify Henry V (On Trapeze) among the season's highest recommendations. Under Steven Cole Hughes' guest direction, a sextet of strong local actors is led on stage by Fight and Flight co-artistic director Eileen Little (who plays the Chorus) and actor/ aerialist Daniel Loeser in the title role. Repeatedly, the troupe folds and twists aerial technologies and bodies into a series of sudden, vivid and frequently unexpected tableaus.
In his program notes, Burning Coal artistic director Jerome Davis describes the group as "hell-bent on finding a physical manifestation for the lyricism of Shakespeare." He's right. Their quest first takes flight here in the prologue as Loeser rises while actors representing famine, sword and fire lay "leashed in like hounds," as the text puts it. Moments after, Little utilizes three trapezes and four cast members to assemble a breathtaking two-story altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion—the backdrop for a scene at Canterbury Cathedral.
Repeatedly, suspended ropes and metal bars form an array of settings, including the chambers of the battling kings, the gates of an embattled city and an orgy where gender-indeterminate traitors seduce a monarch. Later, Henry and the Dauphin (Whitney Madren) grapple on a single trapeze, ascending and descending past each other as their fortunes change in the fight. Only once does the imaginative choreography suggest a self-indulgence not in service to the script: An exquisite aerial solo by Little still loiters before we see it as a reverie of Katherine, the French king's daughter.
At the outset, stage manager Andy Hayworth and technician Michelle Wood play clubland DJs from a corner stand, as the performers enter to techno dance tunes. Though similar music demonstrates how lightly the French take the coming battle, its use throughout the battle scene leaves the first depictions of that war's horrors to Jenn Suchanec's Montjoy in a post-conflict narrative. While a trapeze-aided move worthy of the late Bruce Lee is good for a laugh, the captivating aerial hand-to-hand conflict still stays aesthetically distanced from war's grimmer realities.
Even with the work cut down to two hours, a cast of eight would have to stretch to cover all the relevant roles. John Allore got laughs during a mid-scene costume change that transformed him from a French soldier to an English one. At the end of a long battle cry he paused, implored the audience "Stay with me here" and then gave another lusty yell as he finished the transition.
Samantha Corey lends a warrior's passion to Shakespeare's fourth-act anti-war soliloquy, and Suchanec and Lucius Robinson animate Nym and Pistol, a pair of brawling comic soldiers. If Loeser's Henry remains improbably noble throughout, his courtship of Little's Katherine brings poignancy and gentle humor to the final act.
The only comedic gambit I question here involves the overweeningly fey takes on Orléans and King Charles. So unimaginative a choice particularly sticks out in a production where a keen theatrical imagination so frequently and effectively rules. For the rest, the thrills, energy and fidelity these trapeze technologists maintain make this show a Shakespearean sight to see.