Review: World Premiere of John Fisher’s ‘Shakespeare Goes to War’ at Theatre Rhinoceros (*****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

(from L to R): Jesse F. Vaughn, Gabriel A. Ross, John Fisher, and Sean Keehan in Theatre Rhinoceros' world premiere production of John Fisher's "Shakespeare Goes to War." Photo Credit: David Wilson.
(from L to R): Jesse F. Vaughn, Gabriel A. Ross, John Fisher, and Sean Keehan in Theatre Rhinoceros’ world premiere production of John Fisher’s “Shakespeare Goes to War.” Photo Credit: David Wilson.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

John Fisher has to be the first words of this review because he is the playwright, director, actor, and head of Theatre Rhinoceros, and because he brings us a World Premiere performance of a rich play drawn from his own life. And he does all that humbly, comically, and brilliantly. Fisher takes his experiences as a shy gay student in a California public high school and shows us how an English teacher named Harry Smith demonstrates to his students how to act in Shakespeare, how to love the theater, and how to be honorable citizens. Along the way, the young student, Jack Fletcher (Gabriel A. Ross), learns the secrets of Smith’s past. Fletcher finds out that his teacher, Smith (Fisher), was a POW in WWII, and that the Commandant, Oberst Klambach, forced Smith to stage “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello”, using US Army prisoners as actors. Ross plays the younger Smith in WWII, while Fisher plays the stage-struck Nazi Klambach, mingling “Hogan’s Heroes” with a serio-comic critique of art and war.

Ross, as both the student Fletcher and the Young Harry in the U.S. Army, keeps us focused throughout on two different stories, the classroom and the POW camp. He makes the play possible by his intensity and his sprightly characterizations of a questioning and self-doubting young guy. He proves a worthy counter-point to Fisher’s multiple roles.

Fisher not only writes and directs, but plays the teacher, the Dad, and the Nazi Commandant, making each one a memorable, distinct, and nuanced character. What more can we ask? Fisher succeeds in enlightening us about theater, Shakespeare, acting, Brecht, WWII, history, teaching, learning, coming out, racism, and gay repression. All this takes place during the campaign for the Brigg’s Initiative (Prop 6) of the 1970s, which tried to ban gay teachers from the classroom in California. Smith, the gay teacher, keeps his gayness hidden, preferring more subtle messages and methods.

Even Ronald Reagan (Kevin Copps) makes a cameo appearance and saves teacher and student alike from Briggs at the last electoral gasp. Along the way, the young Fletcher learns about politics, aesthetics, elections, and homophobia — among other things — a regular Tony Kushner-esque panoply of history and personal discovery that keeps us riveted all through the three hour production. By the end, you will have a tear in your eye, truly, for the sweet and subtle tribute to Harry Smith, the true philosopher-king of Fisher’s play. How sweet it must be that he gets to play his own beloved Shakespeare teacher, who advises Fletcher that he must go to Yale or to Berkeley — Yale, where they turn out so many fine gay actors; or Berkeley, where they turn out rebels, clearly.

Through it all, we are treated to wildly comic scenes of U.S. military prisoners trying to act and direct “Othello,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Richard II,” and Coriolanus. Each Shakespearean scene becomes more understandable as the soldiers and the students struggle with costumes and props. They struggle with words and music, meaning and action, with direction provided by the Nazi with an “artistic streak,” an actor himself; or by Harry Smith in the classroom, who has a soft touch and a winning way — both played impeccably by Fisher.

Only five actors combine and split to cover a mass of roles: Sean Keehan plays Ryker Flek, a surly student, and Capt. Conroy, a southern military prisoner with decidedly backwards and racist views. Conroy provides a brilliant Hotspur-like foil for young Fletcher’s self-questioning and theatrical flair as Juliet and Desdemona in their hilarious attempts at love scenes.

Jesse F. Vaughn plays Jeremiah Denby, Fletcher’s crush in high school, as well as playing Captain Washington, a U.S. prisoner who gets tricked into playing Othello for the resourceful Fletcher. Vaughn and Ross make a fetching couple as Othello and a blonde be-wigged Desdemona, respectively. They bring us lots of laughter and thoughts about race and politics during the War.

Kevin Kopps plays: State Senator Briggs, the homophobe; Shelby Bachman, an “out” teacher who tries his best to be honest with students; Colonel Parker Maitland, a British POW officer; Ronald Reagan; and various other roles—another tour de force of acting prowess.

Our focus remains on the slow, painful, and comic development of Gabriel A. Ross’s main character, Jack Fletcher (J.F.), who learns slowly. He plays Prince Hal to his teacher’s King Harry. Fisher’s portrayal of the boy’s lawyer father is priceless and completely amoral, taking a “business” stand on every issue—even repression and homophobia. Fisher’s subtle and comic portrayals of the Dad, the Nazi, and Harry Smith, the teacher he celebrates here, are essential, elegant components of the play, a finely tuned, if occasionally overdone whole. But I loved every minute, I confess.

The dialogue is crisp, witty, and thought-provoking, giving us insights into theater, war, and heroism in the classroom and in political life. The teacher who changed the life of his student comes across as the admirable hero of the piece — an unusual hero who encourages art and feeling after he comes out of the prison camp. Harry Smith, a king among men, becomes a quiet hero who knows when to move on to the next thing, when to let go. Fisher’s teacher, Harry Smith, shows us the difference between fiction and reality — the line so often blurred now. He tells us to “be careful whom you admire; a mentor can be dangerous.”

Harry Smith teaches us how true heroism may be laced with a bit of villainy. Fisher and his intrepid Rhino cast have celebrated the art of a true teacher, who brings Shakespeare to life for his students, and brings them life. He does it for as long as he can. Then he moves on to tennis. His life before teaching, in the POW camps, prepares him well for U.S. high schools.

Fisher melds the old with the new, the avant-garde with The Bard. And he uses the arts of designer Jon Wai-keung Lowe to create a new kind of space at Thick House theater. The audience sits on the stage, while the steep step-seating with its iron railings becomes the playhouse and funhouse for school classrooms, stages, war camps, love scenes, and dinner talks with Dad. The old become young, the young old. “Handy-dandy, who is the beggar, who is the judge?” You will have to see this wonderful, wise, and witty play to decide for yourself.   Don’t miss it!

“Shakespeare Goes to War” continues at Thick House through November 28, 2015. For further information click here.

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“Shakespeare Goes to War” by John Fisher. World premiere produced by Theatre Rhinoceros.

Director: John Fisher. Stage Manager: JinAh Lee. Ass’t. Director: Colin Johnson. Scenic/Lighting Designer: Jon Wai-keung Lowe. Costumes: Scarlett Kellum. Sound: John Fisher.

Cast:

Jack Fletcher/Young Harry: Gabriel A. Ross. Harry Smith/Dad/Oberst Klambach: John Fisher. Ryker Flek/Capt. Conroy, U.S. Army: Sean Keehan. Jeremiah Danby/Capt. Washington, U.S. Army: Jesse F. Vaughn. State Senator Briggs/Shelby Bachman/Colonel Parker Maitland, British Army/Maj. Anatoly Raisnovsky, Red Army/Lyle Thompson/Ronald Reagan: Kevin Copps.

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