“First of all, forget about the Thirty Years’ War,” the conflict-hardened and battle-weary Gen. Albrecht Wallenstein advises an audience in the first seconds of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s fluidly and handsomely mounted “Wallenstein.”
Forget about it? Isn’t an epic-scale, 17th-century conflagration what ticket-holders have paid to see? Well, as we learn over the course of poet Robert Pinsky’s new and sleekly economical, 21 / 2-hour condensation in English of Friedrich Schiller’s German trilogy — which consumes half a day if performed at its full length — a war is an organism of many independently functioning cells. The name history gives to any such complex calamity, as a result, can only make it seem more orderly — and trivial.
This evening, then, concerns only Wallenstein’s war, the one he waged on various Middle European fronts for an emperor in whom he lost belief — and who lost faith in him. And in the bitterly detached commentary of Wallenstein in the afterlife that Pinsky has created for this adaptation, a Brechtian dimension is added that humanizes Wallenstein (pronounced “Vallenshtine”) and helps to illuminate a seismic betrayal as an act of extraordinary selflessness.
Illumination is what director Michael Kahn’s production on the stage of Sidney Harman Hall is all about, from the precision of the casting to the lighting design by Mark McCullough that bathes death in a sickly green haze and the tableaux of warriors in a soft, warm glow reminiscent of Rembrandt’s paintings. Steve Pickering plays the title character of Schiller’s work, which was first seen in Germany in 1798, and his virile, vocally arresting performance places the core of the show in as dynamic a spotlight as one could desire.
The instances in which Pickering steps out of the action to talk to us, as if he were, say, the jaundiced Salieri of “Amadeus,” imbue the play with mournful theatricality: Act 2 commences with Wallenstein coaxing a young (and dead) victim of the war (a haunting Colin Carmody) to sing a German folk song set to a poem by Schiller’s contemporary, August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, that begins “O, wie ist es kalt geworden,” or “Oh, how cold the weather’s gotten.”Although they feel a tad too arty at times, in an anti-war, agitprop sort of way, these interludes do serve a useful purpose: Wallenstein’s omniscience, his familiarity with our world, are antidotes to the heavy layer of historical drama, with its exotic soldier-names (Kolibas, Czerny, Tiefenbach) and places (Pilsen, Eger) most of us would be hard-pressed to locate on a map.
This mix of the accessible and the hard-to-relate-to is also a pivotal ingredient of Kahn’s staging, which, like the script, benefits from a muscular sense of the inexorable march to death. Wittily, at the start of the play, the text of a primer on the Thirty Years’ War scrolls on the faux-concrete walls of Blythe R. D. Quinlan’s starkly versatile set — and then abruptly fades out partway through. It’s just as Wallenstein instructs us: Who cares? It’s ancient history!
Pinsky, who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1997 to 2000 and teaches at Boston University, pares away hours of exposition from the work of playwright-historian Schiller to relate in concise scenes the commander’s break with Emperor Ferdinand in Vienna and in the interest of peace, his loyalty shift to the enemy Swedes. Wallenstein’s generals of various nationalities — German, Italian, Irish, Bohemian, Croatian — gather around him and smartly, we are given no indication of their diverse ethnicities; no one puts on even the trace of a foreign accent.
It’s a war, in fact, that might have been dreamed up by Brecht: You can’t tell which side anyone is on, a perception that’s reinforced by the rapid conversions from ally to adversary that occur in Wallenstein’s opportunistic war room. Wiliest is his old comrade in arms Octavio Palladini (Robert Sicular), whose motives are as Byzantine as the Roman catacombs. And the purest heart belongs to Octavio’s son Max (Nick Dillenburg), whose love for Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla (Aaryn Kopp) conveniently fits into the schemes of Countess Czerny (Diane D’Aquila), Wallenstein’s sister and the wife of one of his self-serving generals.
“Wallenstein” is performing in repertory through early June with Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” and really, what more can a city ask of a classical company than to be such a provocative matchmaker? An audience embrace of this venture — whether or not one has qualms with some aspects of it — is going to be a crucial test of what level of sophistication greater Washington will support on the stages of Harman Hall and the Lansburgh. Next season offers no such adventurousness there: mostly revivals of classy chestnuts such as “Private Lives” and “The Importance of Being Earnest.”
So enjoy the diagrammable dialogue between plays while you can. The conversation between “Wallenstein” and “Coriolanus” is one of extremes. On the one hand is a German military man who considers laying down arms, on the other, a Roman who dreams of cutting them off. One overthinks, “Hamlet”-style; the other lacks any imagination. As Wallenstein proudly says, there’s a strategic board game named for him and not one called “Coriolanus.” Yet their fates are not dissimilar. The job of doling out wounds, of forming networks of people who are variously rewarded, deceived, promoted or ruined often ends not with a gold watch but a steel blade.
Led by Pickering, the actors — who also show up in “Coriolanus” with Patrick Page — are even better chosen for their roles here, especially Sicular’s robust Palladini, D’Aquila’s severe Countess Czerny and Philip Goodwin’s effete Questenberg, the Emperor’s envoy. Kopp and Dillenburg come across as appealingly ardent, as other actors solidly fill out the officer ranks, the standout being Chris Heitikko’s vengeful Bailey. All are dressed by costume designer Murell Horton in expensive-looking, heavy fabrics and big, leather boots, the better to allow the footfall of “Wallenstein” to be strikingly achieved.
by Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Robert Pinsky. Directed by Michael Kahn. Sets, Blythe R.D. Quinlan; costumes, Murell Horton; lighting, Mark McCullough; original music and sound, Fitz Patton; wigs, Tom Watson; fight direction, Rick Sordelet; voice and text, Ellen O’Brien; literary associate, Drew Lichtenberg. With Derrick Lee Weeden, Michael Santo, Brian Russell, Glenn Pannell and Reginald Andre Jackson. About 2½ hours. Through June 2 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org.