- OnStage Massachusetts Columnist
Cry ‘Havoc!’ is a captivating and powerful one-man show written and performed by Stephan Wolfert and directed by Eric Tucker. Stephan Wolfert served as an Infantry Officer and Medic in the US Army from 1986 to 1993. It was then, after seeing a production of Richard III that he left his military career and went to graduate school to pursue acting and the theatre. In Shakespeare’s plays he saw veterans. He related to their speeches and could see himself, his comrades and his friends in those scenes. In performing these characters he has found catharsis. He is now working with other veterans and using Shakespeare to help them deal with the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and start to recover from it. As noted by Wolfert, havoc is alive and well in every war around the world. Even when veterans come home the havoc they’ve endured does not end.
Five bare, greyish white trees, on an otherwise empty stage, are lined up across upstage. This simple design choice by Gus Kaikkonen artistically represents our inner wiring. Until this production, Wolfert had been performing without a set; just him physically and emotionally taking the audience on a journey using an empty space. The brilliance of this design and how it connects to the core message of the play is absolutely incredible: the military is wired for war, but they are not unwired when war is over. Thus trauma haunts their lives and they often cannot escape it.
Those that serve in the military are recruited and then wired for war. Their humanity is taken away. They are taught to respond to orders without thought and to respond to a threat with violence just like the Berzerkers centuries before them. Berzerkers were warriors and fighters from ancient Norway who used huge swords and battle axes to take out their enemy. These fighters, like soldiers today, distanced themselves from humanity. Wolfert goes on to share stories about trench warfare, the roll of camaraderie in PTSD and Henry Lincoln Johnson, an African-American infantryman from World War I who, after suffering twenty-three gunshot and stab wounds, saved his comrade from torture and execution by the German enemy. When they had recovered from their injuries they went back to the front lines and fought together once again for their country. Unfortunately, Johnson ended his life penniless and homeless; drinking himself to death.
Wolfert says when he was first leading his company of soldiers, he thought he would be the kind of leader that was part Rambo and part John Wayne, but when they got to the front lines and the bullets started flying he knew he had to be the kind of leader that did what he had to do to keep his men alive. Quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V he says, “Once more unto the breach dear friends” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother…”.
Henry V was not the only play of Shakespeare’s he gathered lines from to intersperse with his stories. Wolfert disperses lines and monologues from many of Shakespeare’s plays including Julius Caesar, Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Henry IV, Henry V and more. The war stories he tells add astounding depth and more profound meaning when paired with these lines from Shakespeare. He performs “Now is the winter of our discontent…” from Richard III, the play that inspired him to pursue theatre. From Macbeth he says, “So foul and fair a day I have not seen” when describing the night his vehicle took on friendly fire and his best friend was shot in the face. He shares how he held his friend’s head as he lay there barely breathing as they waited for medical assistance and a helicopter to come and pick him up. He gut-wrenchingly recalls details of the day, a week later, when he had the task of handing a folded flag to his friends’ wife and daughters at his funeral.
Wolfert shares how when soldiers leave the military they are not “decruited” and unwired from war. They are not given their humanity back and wired for life in civilian society. In using Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech, he describes the suicidal moments he has faced in his own life. Developing, rehearsing and performing this play has been therapy of sorts for Wolfert, who after years of alcoholism and PTSD, is using his talents as a writer and well-rounded performer to share not only his story, but the stories of other veterans spanning hundreds of years.
While much of this play is heavy with turmoil, Wolfert does add humor to break up the emotional rollercoaster he is taking the audience on. These real-life stories of war and its aftereffects are vividly told, and with seemingly boundless energy, physically acted out by Wolfert in a way that no other actor could do with the same authenticity and passion. This play is unique, honest, compelling and poignantly relevant to today’s world.
The production concluded with a robust, extensive, and very well deserved standing ovation. After every performance Stephan Wolfert does a talk-back with the audience to recognize the veterans there and give the audience a chance to share their thoughts on the production.
Cry ‘Havoc!’ is a must see! Whether you see it in Peterborough, NH in the next few days, or the next location Stephan Wolfert performs it, this is a powerfully raw and riveting production that needs to be witnessed. © This production is rated PG-13 due to strong language and adult situations. Cry ‘Havoc!’ is only being performed on the Peterborough Players stage, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, until September 18th. For tickets call the box office at 603-924-7585 or check out www.PeterboroughPlayers.org.
For additional information about the play and the organizations Stephan Wolfert is involved with visit: www.ShakespeareAndVeterans.org , www.govcpa.org , www.decruit.org , and www.theatrebedlam.org. Photo: Stephan Wolfert in Cry 'Havoc!'. Courtesy Peterborough Players.
For more of my reviews and theatrical thoughts check out: http://intheatresome1isalwayswatching.blogspot.com/