THEATER


St. crispin’s day
By Matt Pepper. Directed by Simon Hammerstein.
Wed. - Sat. at 8:00 p.m. and Sun. at 7:00 p.m.,
through July 20 at Rattlestick Theatre, 224 Waverly Place,
$37.50 (212) 868-4444


Using Henry V’s troops to talk about Iraq

By JERRY TALLMER

PISTOL: Qui va la?
KING HENRY: A friend.
PISTOL: Discuss with me: art thou officer,
Or art thou base, common, and popular?
— Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speak
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
— Henry V, Act V, Scene 3

The principal characters in Matt Pepper’s daring, fascinating “St. Crispin’s Day” are not Harry the King or Gloucester or Bedford or any of the nobility — but those base, common, disreputable, and popular ordinary soldiers, enlisted men, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, Tom, and one angry cynic, Will, loosely related to the cynical Williams of Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

Indeed, the Will of Pepper’s drama at the Rattlestick Theatre on Waverly Pl. — Pepper makes him Irish into the bargain — gets his various comrades involved in a plot to kidnap King Henry and hold him for ransom, rather than just go out and get themselves butchered in Henry V’s self-aggrandizing war with France.

If it’s something of a burlesque plot, well, “St. Crispin’s Day” is a very dry take on the Shakespeare drama that playwright Pepper speaks of as “probably the greatest piece of war propaganda ever written.”

It was in fact another war 400 years after Shakespeare, 588 years after the Battle of Agincourt, that got Matt Pepper’s juices flowing — juices of indignation, that is.

“Why? Why, why, why, why?” he says, quietly — he’s a quiet, thoughtful, 35-year-old “relatively native” Brooklynite who grew up on Long Island. “Why this play? A great deal has to do with the political climate of the moment.

“I got very frustrated a couple of months ago watching CNN refer to the American troops as ‘the Allies.’ Now they call it the Coalition.” Short pause. “Coalition of two,” Pepper mutters, without needing to throw in the names Bush and Blair.

Simon Hammerstein, the 26-year-old London-born New Yorker who directed the play that’s rattling a stick one flight up at 224 Waverly Place, throws in three words of his own: “Everything is jingo.”

For that matter, William Tecumseh Sherman, the golden warrior on the horse across the way from Bergdorf Goodman and the Hotel Plaza, used only three words of his own to sum everything up: “War is hell.”

Here’s how Will, the skeptical hard-ass in “St. Crispin’s Day” says it, the night before Agincourt:

What you’re supposed to do is run into a muddy field and get chopped all to [crap]. That’s what you’re supposed to do. Do you know who they won’t kill? Him. Henry. Do you know why? Because they’re not supposed to. That’s the rules of this stupid [freaking] game: They make the war and you get killed in it. If we had any [freaking] brains at all we’d stop killing each other and start killing them.

Matt Pepper, a graduate of Binghamton University and the National Theater Conservatory in Denver, had at first thought that the way to comment on the political (and military) climate of the moment might be to mount an ironic production of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” itself. But then he had second thoughts.

“I don’t think it would serve the play. I’ve seen it done that way in college, and it didn’t really work. I don’t enjoy seeing Shakespeare done ironically. People who try to improve on Shakespeare don’t do that, don’t improve it, because he’s better at it than you are.”

Pepper has of course seen both Olivier’s great 1944 film of “Henry V” and the 1989 version by Kenneth Branagh, but doesn’t think either of those works “had any affect on this play.” (Director Hammerstein looked at the Branagh “to freshen up for this show”; he has never yet seen the Olivier.)

What did have some affect, Pepper says, was “a wonderful book” someone gave him, Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present,” which offers what Pepper calls “an alternative perspective” on where we’ve been and where we are now.

When Pepper completed a first draft it went to Rattlestick artistic director David Van Asselt, “who liked it and suggested revisions and gave it back to me. I did the rewrites very rapidly. He gave it back to me with more suggested revisions. The whole thing went very quickly.”

Hammerstein, who had directed the reading of another work at Rattlestick, was called in to direct a reading of this one as part of Rattlestick’s Exposure Festival for two days two months ago, with 90 percent of the present actors. These are:

David Wilson Barnes (as Will), Lauren Berst (Cecile). Lee Blair (Father Morpath), Denis Butkus (Tom), Alex Draper (King Henry), Mayhill Fowler (Mary Anne), Michael Gladis (Nym), Darren Goldstein (Fluellen), Richard Liccardo (Bardolph), and Tommy Schrider (Pistol).

Matt Pepper is the son of Bill Pepper, a retired Bronx cop “who was Sgt. Pepper, he really was, and not only that but my brother is a professor of English literature, so he’s Dr. Pepper.” Matt and Dr. Pepper’s mother, Gayle Goodall Pepper, “raised us five kids and then went to work also for the police.” Mrs. Matt Pepper is Kristen Geber, the daughter of a Cleveland cellist.

Simon Hammertein, the son of producer James Hammerstein, grandson of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, has won praise for his direction, ere this, of “Trueblinka” and of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Men Without Shadows,” a play set during another, bigger, more consequential war.

Why, why, why.

Playwright Pepper: “I don’t think it’s very revelatory to say that war is degrading to those involved. This play? Mostly it’s a comedy. Seriously.”

Director Hammerstein: “One hour and 20 minutes. With laughs.”


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