CRY “HAVOC!” - SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY All you need for a great piece of theater is great storytelling, says CRY HAVOC’s director Eric Tucker. Nothing could be truer about CRY HAVOC, an extraordinary and poignant autobiographical play written and performed by Stephan Wolfert, a US Army vet and member of Bedlam, the Manhattan-based theater company. For a riveting 80 minutes, with no props whatsoever, clad plainly in jeans, T and sneakers, Wolfert takes us with him on his painful, personal journey from diminutive youngest son of an alcoholic, Irish American family (with ballet dancer dreams but temporarily paralyzed from a high school wrestling injury) to crackerjack Army infantry training officer, to PTSD afflicted veteran to professional actor who finds his life recovery through theater - and the words of Shakespeare.
Wolfert seamlessly integrates the most trenchant lines from Shakespeare about war, brutality and personal anguish, into his tale. Hence the play’s title - from Julius Caeser - “cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.“ His performances of soliloquies and scenes from that plus Richard III, Coriolanus, Henry V and Henry IV Part One are the most effective use of Shakepeare verse outside of the original works that this ear has heard.
What’s most astonishing, though, is the emotional intimacy and spiritual clarity Wolfert brings to his own story. His view of self is keen, intelligent, almost external, but his play is really a labor of selflessness. Wolfert’s purpose of CRY HAVOC is to draw attention to the US veteran, who, he states plainly, is wired for combat, but not unwired to return home. Wolfert peppers his work with statistics, like the fact that there are 20 veteran suicides a day in the US. That computes, Wolfert tells us, that in the course of our evening of theatergoing, another veteran has taken his own life. Remarkably, Wolfert makes his point without didactic. CRY HAVOC remains theatre, not politics. It’s a play (and I can’t take credit for this description) that makes the plight of the veteran ancient and the words of Shakespeare contemporary.
Director Eric Tucker, also a veteran, long-time Wolfert friend and co-founder of Bedlam, worked directly in developing CRY HAVOC, but his hand is completely invisible: Wolfert’s story enfolds focused and liquid, both. Integral to this effect is the physicality with which Wolfert creates whole scenes using just his own body: riding the top of boxcar across the Montana plains, recreating incoming fire from the bowels from the bowels of a battle tank, or enacting a teenage ballet fantasy.
Wolfert has the wisdom and self-deprecation to lighten his tale with humor here and there, but the most painful, terrifying moment comes when Wolfert describes, while working as catering staff, a PTSD-induced hallucinatory revulsion over remains of cake at a bratty girl’s birthday party, which drives him to near suicide. To conclude the play Wolfert returns to his adolescent ballet dream, and in a joyous celebratory dance with self expresses gratitude for his own recovery and his hope for that of other vets. CRY HAVOC is what great theater aspires to be - alive and living, and cathartic in the heart and in the head.
POSTSCRIPT: Wolfert presents a coda of sorts to his play, which is a discussion with the audience after a 10 minute rest. I’m not a big fan of talkbacks with either actors or creative principals: the play should speak for itself. Wolfert proves me wrong. Wolfert asks veterans to identify themselves and to say (or not) whatever they want about their service. The technique is totally disarming. In a week of news where words like “sacrifice” and “purple heart” are ideological triggers, Wolfert detoxifies the discussion of politics. The discussion he engenders has as much genuine civic quality as his play has genuine drama. (Every Monday evening in Manhattan, under the auspices of Bedlam, Wolfert conducts a workshop in reading Shakepeare for any vet who shows up.)
CRY HAVOC is on a very limited run at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA until August 13 only. Veterans are admitted for free. For the full experience of Wolfert’s work, stay for the discussion after the play. All in all, pure, living theater at its best.