Theater Review: “Cry Havoc” — The Bard on War, and the Pity of War

Cry Havoc’s message is clear: We expend a great deal of energy and effort in preparing young men and women to kill and be killed, yet we expend no effort or energy at all in re-engaging them into the life of not-war we dump them back into.

Cry Havoc, written and performed by Stephan Wolfert. Originally directed by Eric Tucker. Presented by Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through September 18.

Stephan Wolfert in "Cry Havoc" at the Peterborough Players. Photo: William Howell.

Stephan Wolfert in “Cry Havoc” at the Peterborough Players. Photo: William Howell.

By Jim Kates

Last year, the Peterborough Players closed out their season with a remarkable take on Shakespeare’s long poem Rape of Lucrece. If you missed it, and most of you who read this did, I am sorry for you.

This year, the Peterborough Players are closing out with an entirely different use of Shakespeare, Stephan Wolfert’s Cry Havoc, directed by Eric Tucker. I have been reliably informed that the Players’ presentation is not the only production of Wolfert’s one-man show, and that it will even move to off-Broadway next year.

But why wait?

Cry Havoc is hard to categorize. In form, it’s a stand-up hour-long monologue — part autobiography, part anecdotal reportage that could have been ripped from National Public Radio, part sermon. It is likely to tell you nothing you haven’t already been made aware of, one way or another. But awareness is one thing, theater is another. Throughout, Wolfert interweaves excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays ripped from their context more or less appropriately, yet always making a powerful point. His point is war, war and the pity of war. War and what it does to its warriors (a favorite bromide of a word these days). The backbone of the homily is simple and clear: We expend a great deal of energy and effort in preparing young men and women to kill and be killed, yet we expend no effort or energy at all in re-engaging them into the life of not-war we dump them back into. Thus it has always been, at least since since Shakespeare’s time.

Others have made the same point, and on stage. Notably,  contemporary productions of Sophocles’ Ajax have underlined the same kinds of connection.

But what Wolfert brings on stage is not only the synthesis of Coriolanus with Khe Sanh and Kabul, but a manic interpretive dance generated by  a spate of words — there is no statement made on stage that he does not sign with his whole body: sometimes fluidly, like the undulations of an underwater plant disturbed by unseen currents; sometimes sharply, like a cracking branch; sometimes very concretely, like Henry V sheathing his sword at Harfleur to keep from massacring the audience.

Yes, he breaks the fourth wall, too, and this may be the production’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Wolfert challenges the audience not simply to watch and listen, but to take on the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortune — and yet, at the very end, we are left with a performance, a final dance reminiscent of the jig that concluded Elizabethan plays, but far more dire.

What are we to do with what we have so viscerally learned?  The insights of a Shakespeare play are rooted in the personalities of its complex characters and their actions, a context that should be kept in mind whenever the Bard’s dialogue is taken out of context. An uncomfortable example of this displacement is Wolfert’s expropriation of Falstaff’s “honor” speech. While the words are generally eloquent, in the play they were uttered by a comic monster of an old man who is exploiting war, making money from enlisting men into combat. Without that backdrop, his rhetoric is simply gist for a sermon, a verse of Scripture to be admired for its righteous sentiment.

Shakespeare’s speeches are never just the product of “Shakespeare the Sage,” but the indelible articulations of his characters, who live in the world of his play. A text by Shakespeare does not demand action be taken outside its own bounds. Wolfert’s Cry Havoc does seem to call on us to do something, to act, to walk out of the theater with more than an empathetic catharsis under our belt, but it does not tell us where to go. We’ll have to do that ourselves.

This may be asking too much of Cry Havoc, and I do not want to deflect very far from the searing dramatic hour that Wolfert struts and frets upon the stage. Both his message and his performance are more than worth the attention he commands. If you can’t catch Cry Havoc in Peterborough, look for it where it next surfaces. It reminds us, alas, that the personal devastations of war, like Shakespeare’s theater, is not of an age, but for all times.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

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