Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre has a hit on its hands with a minimalist take on “Henry V”
By Michael Aushenker
Guillermo Cienfuegos’ minimalist, unconventional staging of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” at Venice’s Pacific Resident Theatre has become a runaway hit in L.A.’s theater circle since its Feb. 22 opening, earning rave reviews and playing to packed houses that have extended the play’s initial two-month run through July 20.
“For 27 years, [Pacific Resident Theatre] has been one of the most celebrated companies in town, but nobody around here can remember a show that’s taken off like this one,” he said. “The word of mouth has been extraordinary.”
Just as this production may not ostensibly resemble a typical staging of Shakespeare, its director/co-writer is also not whom he appears to be: Guillermo Cienfuegos is a pseudonym for Alex Fernandez, a working actor with substantial TV credits, including his current role as Pablo Diaz on “Devious Maids.”
As English Lit majors may recall, “Henry V” chronicles the journey of a ne’er-do-well upstart king who inspires a nation by leading a band of ragtag misfits to battle an invincible army five times its size — a kind of “300” in reverse, based on true events of the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.
This production stars Joe McGovern, also the play’s co-writer, as the titular king alongside a group of seasoned community theater actors.
“We are a bunch of rag-tag people” just like the army in the play, Fernandez said.
Naturally, Fernandez and McGovern did not have a Michael Bay-sized budget to depict vast battlefields and thousands-strong armies. They didn’t even have a dozen actors. So much of the action is implied.
Hence the king wears a Slayer T-shirt.
“The actors are all dressed the way they’re dressed in their life. There’s only one prop, which is the crown,” Fernandez said. “It was [McGovern’s] idea to do the show. He did an initial cutting of the play. A lot of people love Shakespeare, but most Shakespeare is done like it’s medicine.”
McGovern and Fernandez took the liberties of paring down what they came to call “Shakespeare’s action movie” into three acts: the run-up to war, the night before battle and the battle itself.
McGovern’s drive for minimalism also has interesting roots. A math teacher by day, he has spent the past two years living in a VW bus in Venice — not by necessity, but by choice.
Living in a van was sort of a test of his psyche. “How would I react to the feeling of non-stability?” McGovern had asked himself, rhetorically. The answer: “Oh, my God! It was terrifying! But that’s what I wanted. I wanted to experience how it’s like to not have those creature comforts around me.”
It’s also the reason the speed metal fan wears a Slayer shirt on stage, as van life severely limited his wardrobe.
McGovern, who’s now living indoors in Culver City and currently editing a documentary about his experiment called “The VW Experience,” has been involved in Pacific Resident Theatre productions since 2011. Impressed with Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 feature film version of “Henry V,” he got the idea to pursue this play while taking Venice Beach walks in the morning mist with his terrier mix Charlie (the play’s poster dog).
He compares “Henry V”’s motley-crew army to “The Bad News Bears.” Velcro’d to his TV screen watching last week’s U.S.-Belgium World Cup match, McGovern explained that while the Branagh version has been called an anti-war screed and the Laurence Olivier film appears pro-war, “I don’t take a pro-war or anti-war position. It’s an underdog story.”
When Pacific Resident Theatre initially gave McGovern a three-week run and $1,000 to stage “Henry V,” he called on Fernandez to helm the production.
“The directing aspect was the thing that was most important to me. He’s a real actor’s director, interested in giving performances that they shine in,” McGovern said.
Once aboard, Fernandez contributed to McGovern’s script, incorporating references to King Henry V from some of Shakespeare’s other history plays, including “Henry IV” and “Richard III.” Fernandez also added Falstaff, a key figure from “Henry IV,” a character McGovern described as “almost a second father to Henry [V].”
As an actor, Fernandez has had roles on “Mistresses,” “Modern Family,” “Desperate Housewives,” “NCIS” and “Criminal Minds” and had a small part on Bay’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” But Shakespeare — and theater in general — is this American Conservatory Theater graduate’s first love.
“It’s been an open secret in the theater I direct under this name [Cienfuegos],” said Fernandez, inspired to assume a pseudonym by Theodore Tagger, a well-known Vienna critic who wrote plays as “Ferdinand Bruckner,” because “he knew that if he directed under his name, they would pull out the long knives for him.”
Fernandez has helmed five previous Pacific Resident Theatre premieres, including the Ovation Award-nominated “Out There on Fried Meat Ridge Rd.,” and has also directed for Chalk Repertory Theatre, Blank Theatre Company, and nom de guerre, a collective he co-founded.
The pseudonym worked, so he kept rolling with it.
“Guillermo got better reviews than I ever got. It seemed a shame to end his promising career,” Fernandez said. “It sounds silly, but I kind of like the separation. I just want the plays I do to be judged by their own merits.”
Fernandez has, however, applied tricks learned from his TV and movie work to the stage, including for “Henry V.”
“I’ve experimented with cinema editing, like close ups, cross-dissolve wipes,” he said. “This [play] has been the most fully realized example of this, with stagings as if the camera is going around ‘Matrix’-style.”
Though a downtown L.A. resident, Fernandez said he is a Venetian at heart.
“I think there is a vibe in Venice that is more open to people dedicating themselves to an art, even if that art is not going to bring them fame or fortune. They do things because they know it’s beautiful,” he said.
Venice has clearly embraced “Henry V,” which has sold out the 34-seat Pacific Resident Theater for 18 weeks straight.
“People have really responded to it,” Fernandez said. “It kind of gets down to the purity of theater — just using imagination to tell a story.”
See “Henry V” at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. $25. Call (310) 822-8392 or visit pacificresidenttheatre.com.