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Shakespeare and WWI Collide in 'The Angels of Mons'

War comes to life with rifles and poetry in this March Forth Productions performance.

Photos by Laura Archer

Shakespeare's history plays tackle some of the grandest and messiest issues of European history, from wars of unending conquest to the futility of such struggles and the rights of the innocent--themes that continue to be relevant long after his time. This is particularly true of the world's first Great War, when the English, among others, experienced violence at a level no one had ever imagined before. And now, in March Forth Productions' new play The Angels of Mons by Eric C. Webb, those two worlds have begun to collide.

Following the death of their leader Lieutenant Axley, six men in the British army are fleeing the carnage of an unsuccessful battle in Mons, Belgium when they come across the ruins of a house. Their plans for taking shelter quietly through the night are quickly dashed, however, when they discover the house's remaining resident, an eight-year-old half-English boy named Harry, hiding in the cellar along with his parents' decaying bodies. And then, as the soldiers try to figure out what to do with the young civilian and get him to open up, they discover a book in the cellar that changes everything: an old copy of Shakespeare's Henry V.

For this disheartened team of ragtag, exhausted soldiers, the last thing they could have imagined themselves doing is performing an impromptu Shakespeare performance to amuse a young Belgian boy. But as the sounds of bombshells in the distance get closer and closer, so does the brutal and dangerous world of King Henry V, until Harry and the men in uniform can no longer tell which story they belong to. So what happens when you realize you may not be the good guys after all?

The Angels of Mons introduces the audience into Shakespeare's world slowly, through the device of one Oxford-educated First Lieutenant and his irreverent anti-intellectual subordinates. We begin with literal readings from the play, with many pauses for George, the First Lieutenant and longtime reader, to explain to the rest of the soldiers what the verse means and why it matters. Before long, however, the whole troop has joined in, with the rest of the soldiers improvising comic relief scenes with crossdressing and innuendo while young Harry discovers a natural talent for performing the role of his namesake sovereign. And less explanation becomes necessary as the roles blur together, and we move effortlessly between the two worlds.

But in our "modern" WWI world, who is Henry? At times, when he is inspiring the troops to continue the fight no matter how little hope remains, he is the idealistic boy Harry. But at others, when he is urging the slaughter of innocent French townspeople, the connection to the modern British army becomes more problematic. Shakespeare's questions continue to resound in this and every other era of warfare: Who are the good guys? Do we respect the innocent? Are leaders responsible for the deaths of their soldiers?

The Angels of Mons does a great job bringing WWI-era Belgium to life with only costumes and sound cues, plus a few packs of army supplies and the like. The soldiers' English accents are surprisingly consistent and believable, except for when they interact with Harry, a role that is performed without a trace of any accent. But that in no way detracts from Sophia Spiegel's performance as one of the best child actors I have ever seen, effortlessly performing extensive Shakespearean monologues and taking on a part that drives the plot of the entire show.

Playing opposite Spiegel is Michael Broadhurst as First Lieutenant George Hinkle, the timid, uncomfortable new leader who finds his way through sharing his love of literature and proving that he is now finally capable of protecting himself and the others who depend on him. Christopher Basile as Private Frank Burke, meanwhile, is the perfect foil to Hinkle, brash and outspoken yet possessed of the sort of practical knowledge, in addition to the scholarly, that might actually get the little band of soldiers out of their hiding spot alive. The rest of the soldiers form a sort of chorus, filling out the central drama between those three while holding their own against the Germans.

The first act of the play is in many ways the stronger of the two, with the plot losing steam after Harry realizes the true horrors of war even when you are the "hero" and runs away. Given that Burke angrily hints at it throughout the night, the ultimate revelation that Hinkle tried to desert the army during the last battle is somewhat anti-climactic, while the deaths we witness during the final skirmish form the only possible ending the show could have had.

Still, the true suspense of the play comes not from its ending, but from never knowing when Shakespeare will sneak in, when our bumbling British soldiers will be transformed into legendary warriors in the conquest of France. And just as the Bard sought in Henry V to portray a battle of nations onstage without horses, weapons or a cast of thousands, so does The Angels of Mons succeed in demonstrating the immense scope of war by following just six soldiers throughout one night of an unending struggle. As long as battles are fought and nations come to heads, King Henry's ghost lives on.

The Angels of Mons plays at Under St. Marks Theater through April 4.

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