Thursday, November 12, 2015

"Shakespeare Goes to War"

"Shakespeare Goes to War"
John Fisher

Jesse F. Vaughn, Gabriel A. Ross, John Fisher & Sean Keehan
Subtitled “Everything I needed to know about Shakespeare I learned from my high school English teacher,” John Fisher’s latest play, "Shakespeare Goes to War," is clearly his personal homage to one or more teachers who pointed him toward his career in theatre.  This Theatre Rhinoceros, world premiere play being staged at Thick House in San Francisco is a montage of several, compelling stories; but at its heart, it is about a man’s enduring love and admiration for a teacher who gave him a life’s worth of inspiration in two separate semesters of his freshman and senior years.  Five actors play fifteen parts in the halls of a late-1970s suburban high school and in a German prison camp the last two years of WWII, enacting the intertwining lives and vignettes on the Thick House’s tiered platforms where the audience normally sits while we look upward from the flat stage surface at the action in school hallways, prison bunkhouse, and war-time battlefields. 

When the narrator, Jack Fletcher, opens his recounting of how his English teacher, Harry Smith, used the Bard himself to mold and shape who Jack becomes as an adult, he actually opens a Pandora Box of multiple tales and their characters, some of which happened in his lifetime; and some, in his teacher’s earlier years.  We meet a kid who terrorized him in high school and a boy who became his first love and kiss.  We are introduced to a male teacher, Mr. Bachman, who in ‘78 dares to wear a scarf and swish openly about the classroom and to his favorite teacher, Mr. Smith, who is decidedly more coy and private about his orientation.  We back track to see young Mr. Smith in prison camp befriend both a theatre-loving commandant as well as the only black, American prisoner who bunks with the white officers and turns out to be a good actor.  Our story pauses along the way for intense one-on-one conversations between Jack and his father on why being gay is a not good economical choice, between young Harry and his Nazi captor on why Brecht is the modern Shakespeare, and between the two gay, high school teachers on how much to open or not the closet door.  There is a story of coming out, a story of racial discrimination, and a story of teacher learning from student.  Scenes of "Romeo and Juliet," "Othello," "Richard II" and "Coriolanus" play out on both high school and prison camp stages, both with gender-bending actors and surprising consequences.  California Senator Briggs plugs his initiative to ban gay teachers, and Ronald Reagan appears to oppose it.  The concept of hero is tackled in all the complexity that Shakespeare himself once wrote, with those who in some ways inspire us often also having streaks of evil that we detest.  And all is accomplished in this initial production of John Fisher’s new two-hour, forty-minute play in a manner that is overall captivating, entertaining, and rewarding.

John Fisher directs the rather complicated, many scenes of the two acts as well as tackles admirably three critical roles.  As Harry Smith, he at times has the shy smile, folded arms, and calming nature of Mr. Roberts of TV fame while at other times he totally sizzles with excitement as he urges his students to the stage to show new boldness and risk-taking.  As Jack’s dad, he is a bit bumbling as he jogs around the house in his underwear and a lot one-track-minded as he evaluates in his rather pompous, but good-natured way everything in terms of bottom-line payoff.  Finally, when he appears as Oberst Klambach, commander of the German prison camp, he wreaks with a sinister air while also impresses his prisoners as a well-read intellect and lover of high arts.  (Mr. Fisher, as a jack-of-all-trades, also is the Sound Designer for the production, concocting a rather constant chorus of hidden-actor, people-generated sounds ranging from bullets and bombs to dialogue of Hollywood film clips to trains, sirens, and bells.  The overall effect sometimes works, and sometimes seems a bit amateurish and distractingly silly.)

Gabriel A. Ross is the intense, angular-faced narrator, Jack Fletcher, who appears at times ready to pop out of his skin as he at first hangs back and then dives wholeheartedly into new discoveries of theatre, politics, and boys (or at least one cute guy in his class).  He is somewhat the same in his eagerness to push new boundaries as war prisoner, young Harry Smith; and when he takes on the roles of Juliet and Ophelia in their all-male, camp productions, he is both hilarious and impressive in his performances.

Sean Keehan thrives in his roles as bad boy as both cocky but cute high school-er Ryker Flek and as Louisiana-born and -bigoted Captain Conroy in the wartime flashbacks.  Jesse F. Vaughn doubles as WWII Captain Washington, who seethes in steely silence against Captain Conroy’s racial slurs and then proudly takes the camp’s stage as Othello.  In the later time period, he is a multi-talented and accomplished student, Jeremiah Danby, persuasive in goading new friend Jack into registering to vote to fight the Briggs Initiative and into coming home after school for a first-time make-out session (with lips only, no hands).  Taking the night’s award for most parts with the most dialects and accents is Kevin Copps who changes costume, nationality, vocals, and demeanor too often to remember all the parts.

In the end, Mr. Fisher’s script stands up well for a first-time out; but its complexity of scenes, characters, and story segments could use some trimming in the next go-around.  There are several, sudden diversions (like escaping prisoners and dead bodies of soldiers) that pop in without much reason or rhyme.  There are some characters that, while interesting in their own rights (e.g., Jack’s Dad or a couple of Mr. Copps’ many personalities), and some entire scenes that, while important in points made (e.g., the two gay teachers’ private conversation about surviving all these years in a homophobic world), could probably be saved for another story, another play.  The impact would, I believe, be even greater than it already is on the main story of two gay men – one who in the end reflects on the other’s profound influence by anointing him, “a teacher, a mentor, a hero.”

For anyone, who is most everyone, who has that one teacher or mentor whose image and voice still vividly play out periodically in your mind’s stage as an inspiration to be your best self, "Shakespeare Goes to War" is written for you and should be seen in this premiere of Theatre Rhinoceros.

Rating: 4 E’s

Theatre Rhinoceros continues its world premiere of "Shakespeare Goes to War" at Thick House, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco through November, 28, 2015.  Tickets are available at .

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