Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war…
— Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I
Fort Worth — In “Richard II’s Ordinances of War of 1345,” the punishment for any man in battle who yelled “havoc” without authorization was death. And no wonder, for the order “havoc” had a specific, devastating meaning for soldiers in the field: all rules out the window. Once the order was given, soldiers were given permission to loot, rape, and pillage the enemy without consequence or remorse, to give free rein to their worst impulses. And why not? Surely the enemy deserves no better.
Dehumanizing the other side in a conflict has historically been a key element in conditioning soldiers to kill in wartime, and the damaging consequences of this approach is a recurring theme of Stephan Wolfert’s Cry Havoc!, produced locally in partnership with Amphibian Stage Productions. At turns funny, jarring, and devastating, Wolfert uses Shakespeare’s depictions of veterans and seamlessly blends them with his own experiences in the military to make the argument that we while we train our modern soldiers in “combat readiness,” i.e., to be ready to kill enemy combatants at a moment’s notice to protect their brothers-in-arms, we fail to help them overcome those conditioned instincts toward violence and reintegrate into society when they return to civilian life. But the production is no dry lecture. Wolfert has clearly invested his heart and soul into communicating the shattering consequences of war and the lack of support received by veterans when they emerge, and the result is riveting.
Wolfert’s journey to the theater was certainly a winding one. Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin with a family that was, to put it mildly, not supportive of any artistic endeavors, Wolfert pushed down such impulses and enlisted in the Army. Following a seven-year stint in the military, while still enlisted he went AWOL and happened to walk into a theater in Montana putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. And the rest was history.
Wolfert resigned his commission to pursue a career as an actor, and has flourished, performing in several acclaimed productions with Bedlam, an off-Broadway theater in New York, as well as collaborating with Billy Joel and Twyla Tharp on their Tony Award-winning Movin’ Out and teaching Shakespeare at Cornell University and elsewhere. But not content to rest on his well-deserved laurels, the actor-veteran founded DE-CRUIT, a program focused on combining Shakespeare and scientific methods to help veterans re-acclimate to civilian life, and Cry Havoc! is its thesis statement. The show has been produced all over the country and even overseas, often at public events focused on veterans and trauma, and has won a number of prestigious awards. Essentially, Wolfert argues through the piece, while we are excellent recruiters of soldiers—walking them through every aspect of the transition from civilian life to the military—we fail to then “de-cruit” them, and offer equal support through the transition back.
Directed by New York-based Eric Tucker (the Artistic Director of Bedlam who first collaborated with Wolfert on Cry Havoc!, and winner of too many awards to name for his work there and elsewhere in the region), Wolfert turns in an exhaustingly physical performance, one completely lacking in ego—he throws himself around the stage with almost total abandon, at times pacing (almost jogging) in wide circles, and clambering over audience members while declaiming the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. But Wolfert’s physicality also incredibly nuanced and controlled; physical markers—from depiction of a high school wrestling injury that left him partially paralyzed to a recurring gesture that evokes the death of a comrade in arms—are threaded through the piece to connect with the Shakespearean elements embedded in the work in a sort of feedback loop, one informing the other. His shuffling gait while injured as a youth, with an arm held tightly to his chest, is the posture of the deformed Richard III, and his cradling of a dying friend’s head both acts as a convenient physical shorthand for death in wartime, but also subtly conjures Hamlet and his poor Yorick’s skull.
Transitions between Wolfert’s words and Shakespeare’s are equally seamless, with Wolfert moving from descriptions of his own or other soldier’s experiences into Shakespearean monologue, most often when the pitch of emotion is highest. There’s no dearth of veterans to be found in Shakespeare’s works, as Wolfert points out, and he’s mined the plays for the most pertinent speeches from Henry the Fifth to Coriolanus to Macbeth (yes, he says the name, horror of horrors) and beyond that speak to modern soldiers’ emotions both during war and after, with harrowing effect. But Wolfert finds the humor, if fairly dark, in his experiences as well, and even, finally, some sense of cathartic joy. The final moments of the show are a sort of ecstatic thumb-in-the-eye to those who tried to stifle Wolfert’s love of performance, and end the show with a sense that recovery from the trauma inflicted in wartime, while a difficult and ongoing process, is possible with the right supports.
The show’s run at Amphibian ends on Memorial Day weekend. But Cry Havoc! offers a perspective not on how we honor soldiers who’ve died in combat, but to readjust our perspective on those that’ve survived, and on what we owe them.
Editor's note: De-Cruit, a program meant to encourage the reintegration of veterans into society through acting and stage work, will be held at Amphibian Stage Productions beginning May 14. De-Cruit was founded and will be administered by U.S. Army veteran Stephan Wolfert, who will be at Amphibian from May 11 to 27 performing his one-man play, Cry Havoc!
A performance by veterans participating in De-Cruit will be held at 3 pm at Amphibian Stage Productions on May 26, 2018. Admission is free. For more information please call 817-923-3012 or email firstname.lastname@example.org