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Theatre in Review: Cry Havoc! (Bedlam at New Ohio Theatre)

Stephan Wolfert. Photo. Ashley Garrett.

Cry Havoc! is billed as a two-act, one-man show, but really it's a one-act show with the world's longest talkback. This is not a small distinction, and how you react to it will almost certainly determine your reaction to Bedlam's latest attraction. It begins with the actor Stephan Wolfert -- a Bedlam regular in such productions as Hamlet, Saint Joan, The Seagull, and Sense and Sensibility -- presenting his improbable and thoroughly gripping life story. He begins with the image of himself on a train heading through the Upper Midwest one night in the early 1990s. As an attention-grabber, he mentions that he has gone AWOL from the army; if that's not enough, in a matter of minutes, he is lying on top of the train car, riding through the night.

From this suspenseful, peril-filled opening, he flashes back to his awful childhood, in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Among other things, he casually lets drop the fact that his mother, upon discovering that she was pregnant with him, quickly accelerated her intake of vodka tonics, hoping to induce the abortion that, as an Irish Catholic, she couldn't ask for outright. His father couldn't face the world without three vodkas for breakfast. His brother, finding him standing in front of a mirror, pretending to be a dancer, beat him up. And then there was the accident that left him paralyzed for a time; even when he started to walk again, his spine had turned inward and he suffered from painful muscle spasms.

There's nothing crippled about Wolfert today; elfin and limber at 50 -- his shock of gray hair the only clue to his age -- he is an astonishing bundle of energy, bouncing around the stage as if dancing on a hot plate. It's hard to believe that he ever contemplated being anything but an actor, so vivid is his presence, so accomplished his way with a text -- both his and the many passages from Shakespeare that are woven into Cry Havoc! (His reading of Richard III's opening speech is especially impressive.) But as a young man with no college prospects, he enlisted in the army, eventually serving in Operation Desert Storm.

This is the point where Cry Havoc! shifts from autobiography into polemic: He has hair-raising stories to tell, the most traumatic involving his best army friend, who, during an exercise, had his face shot off; the piece's grisliest image features Wolfert, on his knees, reenacting the business of cradling his dying friend's head -- in fact, trying to keep it in one piece. With experiences such as these, it's not surprising that Wolfert took it on the lam.

Back to that train: Wolfert lands in a small Montana town that just happens to have a theatre where Shakespeare is being performed. He buys a ticket and his life is transformed. He vows to become an actor, but he struggles with war-related troubles, such as night terrors. (He wryly admits to deep-sixing more than one relationship by waking up screaming, looking for someone to hit.) True to his family's tradition, he tries to drown his sorrows in a sea of booze, but ultimately -- partly, he suggests, because he found a woman who wouldn't run away -- he pulled himself together.

Oddly enough, Wolfert races through his recovery story, which includes drawing inspiration from Native American ceremonies designed to detoxify one's soul and consulting a number of mental health professionals. He powerfully articulates his conviction that, in our society, we rewire the brains of our soldiers, teaching them to become killing machines -- but that, when they return, we don't teach them how to rejoin civilization. In his words, we recruit soldiers, but we don't "decruit" them.

It's a striking idea, which he illustrates, harrowingly, with the case of Henry Lincoln Johnson, a black American soldier in World War I who heroically survived a blood-curdling battle, only to return home and drink himself to death at 32. In his view -- presented with appalling conviction -- the United States has created a military system in which post-traumatic stress syndrome and violence against women are endemic.

But, obviously, Wolfert found a way out of his eddy of miseries -- after all, he is standing before us on an Off Broadway stage. The first act ends with him coming to New York; the last words before the intermission are, "Now what?"

Now what, indeed. When we return to the theatre for Act II, the stage is filled with chairs arranged in a circle. We are brought on stage for a session frankly modeled on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Wolfert asks how many in attendance are veterans and probes them for their stories; he also asks how many people are related to veterans. What becomes clear is that the sad trajectory outlined in Act I repeats itself daily in lives across the land. (The statistics he presents about the suicide rate among veterans are horrifying.)

Clearly, Wolfert is doing God's work -- among other things, he has a program, in concert with Bedlam, that uses Shakespearean training as a way of helping veterans to purge themselves of the violent psychological poisons they have been filled with in service -- and the issues here are profound and urgent. But in the switchover between acts, he surrenders the power of his narrative to create a kind of ad hoc group therapy session, which undercuts the power of his own best work. Many in the audience leave feeling better for having shared, I am sure, but I kept wondering why we didn't get the rest of Wolfert's story -- how his embrace of classical theatre literature put him in touch with his darkest impulses, helping him tame them.

Anyway, the first act, under Eric Tucker's direction, is consistently gripping, although there are a few passages in which Wolfert could dial down the energy level; at times his intensity threatens to become exhausting. Les Dickert's lighting design -- the only real design -- is solid and unobtrusive. And having seen Wolfert, I have a long list of classical roles I'd like to see him perform. I also have nothing but the highest admiration for the work he is doing with people who are, all too often, forgotten by society. But I would suggest that Cry Havoc! would be even more effective if it remained a play for both of its acts. It feels like Wolfert left us in the lurch with that first-act cliffhanger. -- David Barbour

(24 March 2017)

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