Igor Stravinsky and choreographers from Vaslav Nijinsky to Emanuel Gat have shown us that the rites of spring are stark. But in his new work at the ArtsCenter, INTO THE BREACH, regional actor, director and playwright Ian Bowater shows us that their severity pales compared to the rites of harvest.
It's late July 1914 when we meet a quartet of boys working in a wheat field near Stratford-Upon-Avon. Some have completed their studies at a local school; others will graduate soon. From a flashback, we already know that all took part in a school production of Henry V, Shakespeare's historical drama about the glories and the costs of warfare, during the conquest of France and the Battle of Agincourt.
Now, new conflicts are in the offing. One month earlier, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, and European and Asian countries are taking sides in preparation for a fight. In a few weeks, England will declare war on Germany and enter into what ultimately will be called World War I.
But at present, on a calm midsummer afternoon, the boys scythe the wheat and bind the sheaves. As they do, even those who can see the coming conflict cannot imagine the scope of the bloody harvest just beyond the horizon: one they all will be a part of.
Bowater follows these boys—and their English teacher, Duncan (David Byron Hudson), a first lieutenant in the reserves—into the conflict, where they're reunited later at a military field hospital. Their mission there is to entertain the patients by remounting parts of their production of Henry V, and assist in the recovery of one of their own, Fellowes (a poignant Peter Vance).
In the process, old friendships and contentions are revived. After being drafted into the service corps, Holden (Justin Johnson), the one most opposed to war, brings the most news about the world outside. Meanwhile, his nemesis, the ultra-conservative Verity (Jeb Brinkley), has turned into a young and humorless budding autocrat.
Bowater's gift for elevated poetic metaphor and discourse is consistently on display. In an opening variation on the prologue from Henry V, a severe Laurel Ullman as the Chorus vividly describes the marks that centuries of conflict have left on the face of Europe. An "oozing gash ... like scar tissue on a boxer's brow" has reopened, "hacked by untutored butchery." Ullman later describes a supposed supernatural intervention at the Battle of Mons as "a fiction dressed in the uniform of gossip" that "struts about like a five-star lie."
As Duncan and his former students re-examine Henry V, they explore monologues such as the famous St. Crispin's Day speech that have inspired generations of soldiers. They also uncover in Shakespeare's text the sudden limits of wartime gallantry. As they do, both teacher and students struggle to reconcile their consciences with their present duty.
That task becomes no easier as Holden describes how differently officers are treated than enlisted men, and Fellowes recounts the summary trial and execution of a fellow soldier.
Gregor McElvogue's direction is crisp and sure-footed. Bowater transitions effectively from florid oratory to the commonplace talk of men in a war. In a time when cowardice is a potentially capital offense, we watch five men and Ullman's Nurse Claire struggle with their fears and uncertainties. Then we're left to struggle with their loss.
The show is hardly a joyless affair: The ribaldry and the mixture of folk and show tunes sung by Verity's brother Bertie (Brandon Rafalson) brighten the revue they ultimately produce. But in the season of ghosts now close upon us, Into the Breach is likely to be the most haunting production of the lot.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Love and rockets."