Provocative Ashland Theater: Shakespeare’s take on Sex, War and Politics

Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), Ashland, presents two by The Bard: “Henry V” on the Elizabethan Stage and “Troilus and Cressida” at the New Theater.

“War,” Carl von Clausewitz assures us, is just “politics by other means.” This may have been a dazzling insight for the great 19th Prussian century strategist, but it would have been no news to Shakespeare, some 200+ years earlier.

This season the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) serves up The Bard’s jaundiced take on military adventurism with a pair of war-themed productions  — one a  spectacular pageant on the outdoor Elizabethan Stage, the other an edgy “problem play” in the black-box New Theater. Together they make for a provocative Ashland weekend.

With the current staging of “Henry V” the festival completes its three-year rendering of the entire “Henriad” trilogy, which traces the evolution of Prince Hal, the Bolingbroke heir to England’s throne. He starts out as a slumming teenage wastrel and morphs into a charismatic warlord hell-bent on the conquest of France.

Ever since 2010, we’ve watched actor John Tufts grow in the role of Hal under the tutelage of three different directors. And, as befits the subject, each director’s vision has been darker than the last. By the time Hal ascends to reign in his own right in “Henvy V,” this year’s director, Joseph Haj, has drained the stage of all color for a stark, monochrome production (inspired, he tells us in the program notes, by the gritty black-and-white war photographs of the Vietnam era).

Even the sound track is spare. No trumpets and flourishes here; just a solo percussionist (Kelvin Underwood) who hovers in a gallery above the stage, wailing away on a taiko drum, Chinese mu yu and cymbals that keen eerily when stroked with a cello bow.

In his nuanced portrayal of a complex role, Tufts turns in rousing renditions of the old rallying cry speeches that have long been drilled into every patriotic school child: “Once more into the breach…” and the Saint Crispin’s Day paean to “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” But Henry counterbalances his lofty rhetoric with the blood lust of a scorched earth campaigner, as in his threatened depredations upon the besieged civilians of Harfleur or his “take-no-prisoners” order at Agincourt.

Even when he goes incognito among his troops to sound their morale on the eve of battle, he disclaims any royal responsibility for sending them into harm’s way and entraps one confidant into inadvertent lese majesté. Then he concludes the scene with a “poor me” monologue in which he envies the simple plebs their “infinite heart’s ease” compared with the lonely burdens of the crown.

To demonstrate the burdonsome loneliness of kingship, we’re shown Prince Hal’s stone-cold write-off of  the earstwhile boon companions of  his dissolute youth. When one of them, Bardolph the red-nosed raider (Brent Hinkley) is caught for the capital crime of looting a French church, King Henry — to discourage any laxity of troop discipline or imputation of royal favoritism — refuses to stay his execution. Arguably sound generalship, perhaps, as far as it goes. But — Spoiler Alert here! — Haj ups the ante beyond anything Shakespeare wrote; he has Henry personally (and lengthily) strangle the hapless prisoner downstage center, to audible gasps from the audience.

Other supporting players don’t get in quite as much gurgling and twitching as Hinkley, but they turn in impressive performances nonetheless. Noteable among them: Christopher Jean as the French port-parole Montjoy, Brooke Parks as Henry’s bimbonic consort Princess Catherine of France, U. Jonathan Toppo as the blustering Ensign Pistol. And then there’s Howie Seago, a non-speaking actor who translates the role of Exeter into the gruff idiom of American Sign Language.

But our attention keeps cycling back to the central character of Henry, in all his gore and glory. Thanks to Haj and Tufts, with their unvarnished portrait of the king, I think I’ve finally managed to decode a mystery that has baffled me ever since I first encountered the script: the opening and closing scenes that are so out of tune with the pelting, battlefield urgency of the play’s core action.

At the start of the play, right after the Prologue, instead of warriors onstage the first characters we see are a pair of elderly bishops fretting about a proposed tax on church revenues. A horrified archbishop tots up the potential damage: enough to fund thousands of earls, knights and esquires (read town and county treasuries), not to mention a hundred almshouses (read social safety net).

It must be stopped! But how? The clerics’ solution: drum up a war with France and subborn the king with the bribe of a hefty war chest donation from the church — a sort of 14th century Super PAC. So that’s what this war is actually about, despite all the fine speechifying and collateral carnage to follow.

Just as incongruous is the last scene. After all the slaughter, we are treated to a bilingual courtship. Henry, the eloquent battlefield orator, purports to be tongue-tied in his wooing of his ordained queen, the French Princess Katherine. It’s an offer she can’t refuse; she’s a spoil of battle, with no say-so of her own. Nevertheless, she makes bold to ask him (in her droll Gallic lisp) ” ‘ow can I love zee enemy of Fraunce?”

But I love France, Henry protests. So much so that I won’t give up a village of it. And he goes on to explain to his “Kate” that, since he owns France and she owns Henry’s heart, therefore she owns France. QED.

The patriotic groundlings must have lapped it up back in the days of Good Queen Bess. The triumph of doughty, plain-spoken English over Frenchified frippery. Military conquest capped with sexual conquest; politics by other means. Goes to show how unexceptional is the sentiment of National Exceptionalism in every place and age.

*  *  *

In my high school days, back in the Later Pleistocene Epoch, you could get through four years of English classes without ever hearing of “Troilus and Cressida.” For our edification, we were liberally dosed with Shakespeare’s better known tragedies, comedies, histories and romances, not to mention the chivalric heroics of Homer’s “Illiad.”

But “Troilus” fits none of the tidy dramatic genres. Its love story curdles to a sour denouement; its wickedly funny banter palls in the context of the grim killing fields of the Trojan War; its chivalric paragon, Hector, ends up skewered like a stuck pig before he can even squeeze off any nobly tragic last words. All the Illiad super-stars parade before us in cruel caricature – a virtual perp walk of vanity and venality. No wonder my high school English teachers deemed T&C a “problem play,” unfit for young eyes.

But that was then. Nowadays, T&C has at last come into vogue, precisely because of its moral and generic ambiguity – a problem play for our problematic times. It has enjoyed revivals in every costume idiom from Civil War blue-and-grey to Hobbit chic. It even launched the current season at Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre in London with a Maori version (unsubtitled) that featured “some of the finest tattooed buttocks on the planet.”

But perhaps the smartest adaptation – and the best play I’ve seen so far in what’s shaping up to be a stellar Ashland season – is director Rob Melrose’s T&C against the backdrop of a contemporary war in a certain nameless Mesopotamian country.

This allows director Rob Melrose to contrast the cultural differences between the besiegers and the besieged — jokey, drawling “Greeks” in desert camo versus vaguely Levantine, pietistic “Trojans” — while drawing out the underlying cynicism and hypocrisy on both sides.

Agamemnon (Rex Young), the Greek commander, glad-hands and back-slaps like a true politician/general, while his top strategists, Ulysses (Mark Murphey) and Nestor (Tony DeBruno) connive to spin morale. Ajax (Elijah Alexander) does a lot more strutting and preening than fighting, while the purported arch-warrior, Achilles (Peter Macon) mostly glowers and sulks, leaving the actual killing to his robotic myrmidons.

Among the Trojans are several impressive newcomers to the OSF company. Barzin Akhavan plays Pandarus, the alleged namesake of all panders ever after. He’s the lecherous go-between who brokers the liason of the title characters. Troilus (Rafi Barsoumian) morphs brutally fast before our very eyes from a love-smitten puppy to a hard-bitten attack dog with no hope of ever again winning in love or war. His beloved Cressida (Tala Ashe) switches from a giddy, teen-age flirt to a calculating camp-follower after she’s traded to the Greeks in a prisoner-swap. (In an inspired bit of casting, Ashe also plays the schizophrenic Trojan prophetess, Cassandra).

Another impressive OSF neophyte is Bernard White as Hector, the closest thing to an admirable character in this deadly dark play. In the Trojan council of war, he wisely argues that the prize of Helen is not worth the drawn-out slaughter. He solicitously urges his kid brother, Troilus to sit out the fight. When he disarms Achilles in hand-to-hand combat, instead of going in for the kill he hands back his rival’s weapon (thereby opening himself up to cold-blooded murder). Maddeningly chivalrous, in short.

Hector’s antithesis is the Greek non-com, Theristes (Michael Elich), described in Shakespeare’s stage direction as “deformed and scurrilous.” An unabashed coward, he lurks on the sidelines, waspishly vituperating at all the protagonists — an utterly unappealing character whose only merit is that everything he says happens to be more or less true. Is this Shakespeare’s own voice on war? One hopes not, but still he deserves the last word as spokesman for all lowly, cannon-fodder troops everywhere:

“Take heed, the quarrel’s most ominous to us. If the son of a whore fight for a whore, he tempts judegement. Farewell, bastard.”

lincoln-kaye-mugLincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

Lincoln Kaye

Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.

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