Wallenstein’s director Michael Kahn, poet laureate Robert Pinsky who adapted the original work by Schiller, and lead actor Steve Pickering, all share with the central figure of Wallenstein a sense of enormous vision, purposeful ambition, and potential greatness. Together, they have mounted a much-neglected dramatic classic to speak to today’s audience through this iconic historical character.
But this new work has not quite found its rhythm yet, and – like cracks in an edifice’s foundation and despite momentary flashes of brilliance – the drama shakes and threatens to topple like Wallenstein himself, amounting to a brave but flawed theatrical experience at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
Wallenstein makes up half the program with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and delivers a return to theatre repertory (alternating shows with the same cast and doubling in other ways, including design.) STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn should be applauded for undertaking this rep pairing. This is how many great plays (and actors) in history were honed to brilliance. The frisson of character study and themes shared between Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy and the German war play create a most interesting philosophical dialogue about the nature of military heroes and heroes who then become fallen traitors. The actors who have had the luck to flex their dramatic muscles in both shows may be cheered for their stamina and artistry at the service of Schiller and Shakespeare.
It shouldn’t get any better than this. Therefore, while I found the work compelling, I was mystified as I watched Wallenstein why at times I felt as if I was looking at a creature that had inexplicably lost some of its bones.
I wanted to return to the original play. It’s almost never performed in the English-speaking world. In Berlin, a production directed by Peter Stein featured Klaus Maria Brandauer in the lead raised much interest and controversy – in its ten-hour event.
Certainly, the original work by the great playwright, hailed as Germany’s own Shakespeare, is daunting, with its trilogy of plays (hence the lengthy running time.) But having read all three plays in a translation by F.J. Lamport, I found the second two plays especially to be dramatically engrossing with multi-faceted, compelling characters. The language was rich and, though complex, very accessible.
Wallenstein resonates remarkably with the conflict Americans have experienced recently in our own society between charismatic, military leaders and the government’s need to wrest power from such figures and reassert rule by civilian authority. It speaks to Washington especially, where this conflict is part of the warp-and-woof of our existence.
The parallels between the Coriolanus and Wallenstein are strong: both figures are great generals who end up betraying the very countries and civilizations they fought to protect. Both Coriolanus and Wallenstein can be understood in part as traumatized individuals who have become unmoored (Coriolanus through his brutal upbringing by a war-mongering mother who lives through him her own thwarted ambitions and Wallenstein by a decade-and-a-half of trudging through a continent mired in war.) Both men have forgotten how to live in a civilian world and abide by societal rules. They find themselves unwilling to abdicate their unquestioned authority and autonomy out in the field.
Thankfully, neither play can be reduced “simply” to a study in post-traumatic stress. Both central characters are larger than life figures that make us examine the very nature of heroes who live in rarified ether – until they are brought down.
As Coriolanus, Patrick Page holds himself above the Roman populace, despising the people both because of his patrician class and his individual giftedness. He is an outlier and wants to remain so, not be trotted out to the plebeian rabble like a performing poodle, the equivalent of a media darling, by anyone’s political agenda. In one famous speech, he bellows at the people, cursing them as dogs. He effectively cuts himself off from family and country, saying, “There is a world elsewhere.”
Similarly, actor Pickering as Wallenstein is goaded to explode, “Alone I do it!” These generals have held their armies together under great duress and want no censorship or meddling. Both believe themselves to live outside of rules, raised up to super human invincibility, and that such destinies are guided by the stars.
Wallenstein seems to navigate the world of political intrigue more successfully than Coriolanus. He has political smarts, and Pickering conveys this by showing he has the politician’s knack for remembering faces and favors. He also knows just how much to reveal publicly. (He would never have exposed personal vulnerabilities by tweeting or texting indiscretions.)
At one point, Wallenstein schools his mentee Max Palladini (Nick Dillenberg) by saying “Max, don’t speak now – but as a grown man does/ Be quiet for a while, and wait, and think.” It’s such an affecting scene and carries profound wisdom in the lines that our own military and political leaders might emulate.
Both lead characters fall and fall hard. At one point, as Wallenstein’s fortune turns, Captain Gordon (Phillip Goodwin) speaking to mercenary soldier Bailey says, “We’re lucky to be mediocre.” It drew an appreciable laugh from the audience. Pinsky includes words that all of us feel, standing at the checkout counter of our supermarkets reading gossip rags or watching Hollywood stargazers spout on about the latest withdrawal of millions of endorsement dollars, our societal equivalence of grace.
There are striking moments and aspects of this production. The set, by designer Blythe R.D. Quinlan, serves as a two-story garrison in Bohemia. The sidewalls open in twelve doorways, six above and six below, which allow standing room for sentries and others to guard or bear witness to the war room below. Costume designer Murell Horton picks up on the monochromatic palette of the set and creates a unified look in the armored war gear with light coming mostly from the flashing swords and dark gleaming helmets. Only the two women and the diplomatic emissary brighten the soldiers’ world with billowy, rich fabrics.
Designer Mark McCullough illuminates the stage effectively, especially side lighting the edifice with cool blue-white light, then switching to a warm wash in the inner below to reveal a scene of soldiers drinking and carousing in a tavern reminiscent of the interiors of Frans Hals.
McCullough also chose a ghoulish green caste to flag the “Dead Wallenstein” chorus monologues, sometimes accompanied by the actors swaying in slow motion to indicate dead souls risen from graves. However, these stylized scenes made me squirm uncomfortably and exposed Pinsky’s not altogether successful choices in condensing the drama by having Wallenstein serve in a dual role – as if playing both Henry V and Chorus in the same play. Every time one thought the show might crank into a higher gear, the green light cued that Pickering would instead comment on himself and the proceedings. His Wallenstein-as-Dead Chorus gave too much of the story away, bleeding the show from more needed dramatic tension.
This is just one of several issues in Pinsky’s adaptation. The former laureate may be forgiven as a poet for plucking some German songs and even a poem by Schiller and throwing these into the mix. Colin Carmody as the Singing Boy sang the German beautifully. But later, the ghostly soldiers, singing on two different occasions, brought titters from the audience, suggesting something awkwardly reminiscent of Monty Python.
The drama seemed to skip over key passages like a scratched record, and the actors, many of whom gave admirable performances in Coriolanus, struggled to smooth over and restore the play’s dramatic turns.
Robert Sicular stood out in both productions as someone with the vocal chops to carry and shape classical theatre language and an energized physicality, balancing style with believability. As Octavio Palladini, the soldier loyal to the empire, Sicular brings both dignity and sharp acuity to the role, especially in his scene when he confronts his son, who has coddled himself in dangerous delusions about his hero Wallenstein. Philip Goodwin is also fine, cutting an effete, elegant figure as the diplomatic emissary from the emperor, who is shocked by how Wallenstein has grown out of hand. Goodwin returns later to the stage as Gordon, commander of the fortress. He provides nuanced humor and also pathos to the production.
Chris Hetikko as the Irish mercenary, Colonel Bailey, the soldier with neither country nor family outside of his devotion to Wallenstein, had one of the most affecting scenes of the evening. Discovering that he has been betrayed by the man he’s given his whole allegiance to, Hetikko moves from stricken shock to anger and finally emerges as a cool plotter of vengeance. Avery Glymph as the Swedish Captain gives a restrained but moving performance as the Swedish Captain in a quintessential messenger speech.
Others get more dispatched than served by this adaptation. While Michael Santo cuts a strong physical figure on stage as the Count Czerny, as do Diane d’Aquila (Countess Czerny) and Aaryn Kopp as Thelka (their niece and Wallenstein’s daughter,) their roles in the plot get overly truncated. By leaving out key scenes from the original, including Wallenstein’s and daughter’s first meeting at the garrison, the characters in this family lose the necessary springboards to establish properly their relationships and motivations.
Closes May 31, 2013
Shakespeare Theatre Company at
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
The contemporized script that pushes towards the lean and edgy moved director Michael Kahn to choose Steve Pickering to embody the main character. While Patrick Page’s Coriolanus has a physical and vocal size in what we have come to expect with a classical hero, however flawed, Pickering is more like a modern street thug. He’s conniving, cynical, and, at times, even self-deprecating. But we needed more moments of his demonstrating rather than speaking about his prowess. To my mind, the way the character has been written, it tried too hard to be relevant and gives too much away. Pickering is best when he rages in righteous defense of his men who have suffered along side him.
In this truncated version, Wallenstein finally seems as mysterious a figure as he was before we met him. Was his truly an intentional betrayal or did he simply enter into strategic gamesmanship that turns out to be a fatal miscalculation? And when he aligns himself with Caesar and the stars for “glory, honor, and peace,” I’m still not sure what proportions to assign to these ambitions. Does he want glory above the emperor as self-serving or is this ambition really about bringing the seemingly impossible peace to his soldiers and the countryside? He says both, but the play’s scanning revealed that perhaps too much had been removed.
Michael Kahn has made a bold commitment by bringing a poet laureate and a worthy team together to try their hands at Wallenstein. A worthy experiment, yes. A successful tragedy of stature, not as yet.
Wallenstein by Friedrich Schiller . Directed by Michael Kahn . translated and freely adapted by Robert Pinsky .
Featuring Jeffrey Baumgartner, Jaysen Wright, Reginald A Jackson, John Bambery, Colin Carmody, Andrew Criss, Diane D’Aquila, Philip Dickerson, Nick Dillenburg, Avery Glymph, Philip Goodwin, Chris Hietikko, Jacqui Jarrold, Aaryn Kopp, Derrick L Weeden, Michael Leicht, Joe Mallon, Glen Pannell, Steve Pickering, Max Reinhardsen, Brian Russell, Michael Santo, Robert Sicular . Creative team: Choreography: Rick Sordelet . Lighting: Mark McCullough . Sound: Fitz Patton . Costume Design: Murell Horton . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.