In the know
What: “The Dogs of War”
Where: Wyatt Pavilion Theatre, UC Davis
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $5 donation suggested at the door; limited seating — first-come, first-served
Shakespeare’s comedies do boffo box office at summer theater fests. And the tragedies can draw a crowd — when a touring British production of “Hamlet” visited the Mondavi Center a few years ago, it sold out the house.
But Shakespeare’s sequence of British histories — eight plays about ancient monarchs that many moderns have difficulty telling apart — can be a bit of a tough sell. There’s some excellent material in these scripts — the two parts of “Henry IV” feature Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most popular creations.
But there are also many scenes that present, as one academic put it, “a great mess of angry and undifferentiated barons, thrashing about in a mass of diffuse narrative.” (And since history was all about men in those days, there aren’t many major female characters, to boot.)
Several theater enterprises have tried abridging these plays into shorter and more linear versions. The Royal Shakespeare Company, for example, assembled a well-received condensation called “The Plantagenets” in the late 1980s, focusing on the royal winners and losers in the dynastic struggle known as the War of the Roses.
But the current production at UC Davis — a fresh construct called “The Dogs of War,” adapted and directed by doctoral student Josy Miller — shifts the focus to the little people, including the ordinary young men pressed into military duty who become cannon fodder in the deadly maneuvering between contending claimants to the crown.
The show’s opening segment includes the ever-dubious Falstaff cynically reviewing a lineup of pathetic-looking conscripts, several of whom speak of family hardship, or are physically unsuited for battle. Falstaff nonetheless pronounces them “good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder. They’ll fill a pit as well as better. Tush, man, mortal men, mortal men.”
This gloomy view of war continues in the second segment, which focuses on the exploits of Falstaff’s associates Bardolph, Pistol and Nym — cheerfully self-serving small-time crooks, prone to grab for cash when the chaos that surrounds war offers them the opportunity. (Some of them get caught, and we’re told they’ll hang, though we never actually see a noose in this production.)
A third segment presents Shakespeare’s take on Joan of Arc, the common girl who took up sword and armor to defend France, a figure most Americans think of as a heroine and a saint. Shakespeare, however, was writing for a London audience that considered their king a rightful ruler of France and recalled Joan as a charismatic opponent who inflicted great harm on British troops. So in this version, Joan of Arc is presented as a dangerous witch, whose burning at the stake was deserved.
These scenes (from the seldom-produced “Henry VI, Part 1″) are more often discussed in class than acted on stage; one of the pleasures of “The Dogs of War” is the opportunity to glimpse such rare material.
The fourth segment (from “Henry VI, Part 2″) depicts the rebellion of ordinary folk led by Jack Cade, a commoner who claims royal lineage. Cade fires up his ragtag, unruly followers by promising that when he’s king, “there shall be no money, all shall eat and drink on my score.”
At which point a Cade supporter, one Dick the Butcher — perhaps a forebear of our era’s Joe the Plumber — yells, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” a rabble-rousing line (literally!) that continues to ring through the centuries. Cade, of course, can’t keep his mob together; he’s eventually caught while trying to hide out in a rich man’s garden.
The fifth segment alights in “Henry VI, Part 3,” illuminating the high cost to ordinary families of the war between competing English nobles — specifically, the scene in which a two soldiers slaughter other men in battle, the one soldier realizing to his horror that he’s just killed his own father (who had taken up with the other side), the other soldier realizing that he’s just run through his own son.
This is doubled up with a scene from “Richard III” in which numerous ghosts of people done in by the hunchbacked ruler’s scheming arise and tell him “Despair and die!”
Crowned monarchs do speak in “The Dogs of War,” but they appear as projections, larger than life, looming above the smaller human figures on stage. Common themes about the pointlessness and brutality of war weave through the various episodes, but, of course, there isn’t a continuous plot — or continuous set of characters — holding everything together.
This is very much an ensemble piece, with each member of the cast playing at least a half-dozen roles. The hard-working actors are Monica Ammerman, Megan Caton, Micaela Cirimeli, Skylar Collins, Alexandra Greenfield, Aaron Jessup, John Osuji, Aimee Ouellette, Alex Seal, Hanna Sharafian, Shilpa T-hyland, Mitchell VanLandingham, Amanda Vitiello-Jensen, Dan Cato Wilson, Cooper Wise and Wendy Wyatt-Mair.
Scenic designer Travis Kerr uses movable wooden box-frames, candle-like handheld lights and some wicked-looking handheld weaponry (the latter guided by fight choreographer Slater Penney). Costume designer Heather Brown reminds us that commoners wore drab, often dirty clothing in that era (the nobles on the big screen enjoy cleaner and more colorful garb).
Stage manager Angel M. Weber and director Josy Miller coordinate entrances and exits from every angle; Miller takes advantage of the thrust stage at the Wyatt Pavilion, which once was a barn, and the Pavilion’s semi-resemblance to Shakespeare’s Globe.