The last time Fox Chase actor David Bardeen was onstage at the Lantern Theater, he played the role of the chief rabbi of Amsterdam in the company’s remounting of the highly successful play New Jerusalem. It was the opening production this season.
Now, he’s back on the Lantern stage, this time, as the Archbishop of Canterbury in the company’s current production of Shakespeare’s Henry V.
It brings British history from 600 years ago vividly to life. The young king ascended the British throne in 1413 after a bloody civil war and took on challenges that included waging war with France.
As the head of the Church of England, Bardeen’s character is a commanding presence who is the first to speak when the play opens. He delivers a speech that reveals the church’s interest in waging war in France.
“It’s a long speech, both comic and complicated, and I have to make it clear to the audience,” the actor said.
He didn’t plan it this way, but it’s the third time in one season that he’s played a religious figure. Bardeen also played an Irish priest in InterAct Theatre’s The Exit Interview. Now, in Henry V, which continues until April 14, he’s the head of the Church of England.
“I’m not a strongly religious person,” said Bardeen, 41, whose own religion is “between Methodist and Presbyterian.”
“Yet, I play these powerful religious figures” he continued. “It’s been interesting and gratifying to figure out how to play each of them.”
The archbishop’s role is not his only challenge in this production. To bring the sweeping history to life, seven of the eight cast members play multiple roles. Ben Dibble in the title role in the lone exception.
“We play a total of 30 roles, switching back and forth between roles. It’s crazy!” Bardeen said cheerfully.
For instance, right after Bardeen’s appearance as the dignified archbishop, he transforms himself into a low comic figure, Bardoff, the drunk.
Speedily, the actor takes off his regal white robe. Underneath, he’s in a basic costume. He puts on a red nose made of cork, places a dagger in his belt and a bottle in his hand, and takes frequent swigs (not of alcohol, but of water).
In some scenes, he even switches between nationalities, playing Gower, a British soldier, and then a nameless French soldier who attacks Henry V.
“But he overpowers me and breaks my neck with his bare hands,” said the actor. When Dibble, as the king, gives a cue, “I turn my neck and shake my head from side to side,” Bardeen said. “And then I drop like a sack of potatoes, while making a horrible gurgling sound. Hopefully, it’s gruesome!”
In contrast, as Gower, he’s a competent British soldier who shows his skill as an archer. “Our fight choreographer made these amazing bows with arrows inside. You pull the bow and it looks like we’re releasing an arrow,” he said. “It’s very cool.”
Then, near the close of the play, Bardeen becomes a peacemaker. He’s Bourbon, a wealthy French noble trying to broker a peace agreement. “I make an eloquent speech, pleading for an end to strife, and peace to reign,” Bardeen said.
Playing these multiple roles, especially the speaking roles, Bardeen must find ways to protect his voice. “I drink copious amounts of water,” he said.
It’s not the first time Bardeen has taken on theatrical challenges. The role of chief rabbi also involved several lengthy and intense speeches. Then, too, some years ago, he played the key role of Edmund in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, another Lantern production.
After earning his master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, the Main Line native lived in Los Angeles and had TV, film and stage roles.
After moving back to Philadelphia, he’s performed on many area stages and earned a Barrymore Award for best supporting actor in an InterAct Theatre production.
Now he’s delighted to return to the Lantern stage.
“The Lantern is one of those theaters where actors can explore and experiment with their own interpretations,” he said. He’s also pleased to be working again with director Charles McMahon.
Under McMahon’s direction, the cast of eight has become very close knit. “We were thrown into this huge Shakespeare production, and it’s really bonded us,” he said. “There was so much preparation for such an extensive production. It almost felt like we fought a war together.” ••
IF YOU GO
Henry V runs through April 14 at the Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets in Center City. Tickets available online at lanterntheater.org or at the box office, 215-829-0395.