The Duke of Exeter (Mike Ryan) and King Henry (Charles Pasternak) in Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s ‘Henry V.’

Don't let the word “history” fool you.  Shakespeare Santa Cruz' Henry V is everything you expect, nay crave from the pen of William Shakespeare—and more.

Relentlessly exciting, surprisingly swift, emotionally complex, and richly enjoyable, this finale to the fortunes of Henry Plantagenet, King of England is a rousing dramatic feast.  Modern-day audiences would sell themselves short if they expected any less from this Renaissance masterpiece about a 15th century prince transformed into the stuff of legend.  Here is exceptional theater as relevant as today's headlines.

Directed with insight by Paul Mullins, Henry V is easily one of the most enjoyable and full-bodied productions this festival has ever seen. Led by the astonishing Charles Pasternak as Henry, a cast of nimble professionals brings this absorbing drama to crystal clarity. Every word, every motive—be it courageous or duplicitous—is concise and intelligible. Scenes maneuver deftly throughout the newly expanded stage in the Festival Glen. No wasted movement, no long-winded, drawn-out soliloquizing. The drama moves at a brisk, believable pace. And this season's cast is up to filling the very tall boots of generations of actors and companies who took on Henry V as one of the high points of Shakespeare's oeuvre.

The taut tale of a young king leading his English troops into almost certain defeat on the French fields of Agincourt, appears to be, at first, a glorification of battlefield heroism, of death before dishonor and of piling up as many enemy bodies as possible. And of course Henry must use every wile he (and Shakespeare) can concoct to convince his small, demoralized army to launch themselves “once more unto the breach.” But in fact, as becomes abundantly clear thanks to crisply faceted acting, Henry V is an epic meditation on the ultimate impotence of conquest. Just how Shakespeare shows us this is all part of the gripping drama.

Pasternak, whose physical skill and commanding stage presence have gained precision in the years he's appeared with Shakespeare Santa Cruz, utterly inhabits the mercurial young king—cajoling his supporters, dispatching his enemies, and cleverly wooing the young princess of France. Flawlessly intelligible, Pasternak's Henry is a lightening quick study in rising to the demands of history, all the while reminding us how far he has come from his wastrel days as Prince Hal, John Falstaff's partner in drink.

Just as the world historical stage is strewn with bravura acts, so this production bristles with great moments. As the doddering Archbishop of Canterbury, V Craig Heidenreich is choicely hilarious, though in his other role as King Charles of France he tends to chew his part into lengthy, labored soundbites. One of many excellent players fleshing out the Bard's play on Irish, Scots, and Welsh ethno-linguistic identities, actor Conan McCarty as Welsh Captain Fluellen is saucy, bold, and stubbornly dignified. Of the aging trio of former Falstaff lowlifers, Kit Wilder as Pistol alternately devours and detonates each of his remarkable observations and expletives. The comedy continues in a priceless scene wherein Wilder is literally Pistol-whipped with a leek brandished by irate Welshman McCarty.

On the French side of this saga, adroitly interwoven by Shakespeare with the main action of Henry and his English army gearing up for battle, William Elsman as the French Dauphin can absolutely do no wrong. His portrayal of the hot-headed, vain prince is gymnastically rich and inventive. Beatrice Basso is wildly funny as the non-English-speaking Princess Katherine strategizing to meet her non-French-speaking suitor, King Henry. Unerring direction and outstanding acting are well matched by a versatile and accommodating set, the entire production attractively designed by Michael Ganio and handsomely costumed by B. Modern.

The most indelible after-images of the robust opening night performance remain those created by Pasternak, his eyes flashing with destiny, his body language effortless and agile. Rising to the hallowed St. Crispin's Day passage, he does not so much speak the legendary words, “We few, we happy few…” as embody them with infectious passion. The entire audience would have followed Pasternak into bloody battle, even as the final words spoken by the pay's narrator, Chorus (a superb Marco Barricelli) remind us that conquest rarely heals the woes of the world.
Bravo to all! Henry V is everything that's best about this festival.

Henry V runs in UCSC Festival Glen through Sept. 1.