THE BRIGGS INITIATIVE AND HOGAN'S HERO’S ARE IN THE MIX WHEN SHAKESPEARE GOES TO THE FRONT LINES
Theatre Rhinoceros opens their 38th season of America’s longest running and most adventurous queer theatre with a new work from creative director John Fisher. The 1978 Brigg’s Initiative, and a 1944 P.O.W camp are the setting for writer director Fishers new play “Shakespeare Goes to War”. This World Premiere now on stage at Theatre Rhino Thick House stage through November 28th. Fisher also appears in the new play as his High School Drama teacher Harry Smith, who is the inspiration of this new work. Queer educators were about to be banned from education with the doom of Prop 6, and Fisher dealing with his own teen angst and experiencing the persecution of his mentor.
Fisher staged this work at a smaller venue and turns the table, Fishers says “Shakespeare Goes to War” uses the Thick House in a dynamic way. We will place the action on the audience risers and the real audience onstage. I've always loved the steep mountain shape of the audience with all its stairs and railings. Our set designer Jon Lowe suggested we put the action for one of our shows on these audience risers. "Shakespeare Goes to War" was specifically written to utilize this exciting space. The action goes up and down the stairs, over the railings and to every part of the theatre. The audience itself is seated on stage and even there they are surrounded by action." Fisher has assembled a top notch talented cast to play multiple roles as the story flashes back to 1944.
A young John Fisher “Jack” is played by the talented Gabriel A. Ross, who also doubles as the younger Lt Harry Smith. As Jack goes off to high school, unsure of himself and his place in the world. There his mentor Harry introduces him to Shakespeare, acting, and the magic of theatre. Harry also shares his experiences of being a prisoner of war in a German prison camp during World War II. There he met his own surprising inspiration: the crafty and deceptive Colonel Klambach, also played by Fisher. As Harry faces his own challenges in the past and present, Jack learns that he might be able to help his teacher, through his use of a surprising weapon, Shakespeare.
The almost three hour play moves well as Fisher keeps the story busy and with the use of reverse theatre space, we see his actors at so many levels. In the opening Jack meets with his dad also played by Fisher and that relationship is a struggle. As the story flashes back to the POW camp, we meet Capt Conroy played by the accomplished talented Sean Keehan, and Capt. Washington played by the strong hearted Jesse F. Vaughn. The two word battle with Harry about their roles they are assigned to play in the POW camp plays. Commandant Klambach uses Shakespeare performances to multiplate his inmates. The young Harry falls in love with the drama and of course some of his performance pals that keep the first act interesting. Romeo and Juliet are performed as well as Othello and the all male cast is excellent. Fisher uses the actors to fill in the sound design using live voice and rap to fill gun shots, music from the radio’s and the battles they fight. Its very clever and whatever actor that is not on stage is behind the audience creating the voice sound effects.
The second Act brings the story back to 1978 and the harsh reality of the Briggs Initiative and the effects it was about to have on queer instructors. Jack also deals with his own sexuality. Keehan and Vaughn now play two teens Ryker and Jeremiah he uses in the Shakes performances to battle Prop 6. Jack also follows his true feelings for his first love Jeremiah. His admiration for his teacher Mr Smith are also very strong and his passion to please him is endearing. Fisher is excellent in all the roles he plays, but just as impressive is Kevin Copps who plays no less than six characters including the Colonel Maitland, Ronald Reagan and Senator Briggs. Copps and Fisher have some wonderful costumes by Scarlett Kellum that are based on the classic coats and hats worn by the Russian, to the assless chaps worn by gay teacher Shelby Bachman who befriends Smith. Jon Wai-kung Lowe designed wonderful set pieces that fit right into the were the Thick Stage audience usually sit. He made it easy for the actors to move up and down the two story set. We are seated where the main performance space usually take place. Lowe’s lighting fills the entire Thick stage to cover all the movement in the black box space. Colin Johnson, the assistant director adds to the impressive production team of this season opener.
John Fisher has created a moving “thank you” to the mentors that inspired him to go into theater. The thankless job of being a teacher and inspiring youth. The Briggs years have passed and gay teachers have it a bit better, and any teachers inspiration to youth is exceptional. In one humorous scene with Jack and his dad, he schools his son on attending Cal Berkeley vs Yale, a clear reference to John’s years attending UCB theatre program. The story is based on his real life High School Drama teacher who spent time in a WWII POW camp. It is a touching tribute to Fishers gate to theatre - and I highly recommend this show. It only has a few more performances, it is a great way to celebrate your Thanksgiving break..
Theatre Rhinoceros Presents
A World Premiere Comedy-Drama -
Written and Directed by John Fisher
Shakespeare Goes to War
A Theatre Rhinoceros Production
Thick House - 1695 18th Street, San Francisco
November 4- 28, 2015 21 Performances Only.
Photos by David Wilson