Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Shakespeare Goes to War
Theatre Rhinoceros
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Richard's review of My Mañana Comes

Jesse F. Vaughn, Gabriel A. Ross, John Fisher, and Sean Keehan
Photo by David Wilson
It's relatively rare (though certainly not unheard of) for new plays to premiere in San Francisco. Most of the work produced in local theaters has previously been put in front of an audience elsewhere. It's refreshing, then, to see a true world premiere grace a Bay Area stage. Shakespeare Goes to War, a new work by Theatre Rhinoceros Executive Director John Fisher, now playing at the Thick House, is almost exactly what Bay Area theater needs: a homegrown production filled with promise and possibility.

I say "almost exactly" because, though there is much to laud here, the production is by no means perfect. Or even good yet. It's far too long and some of the performances are wildly uneven, but there's something wonderful burning at the heart of this (currently) hot mess.

The story is a wonderful one, a natural fit for Theatre Rhinoceros, the "longest-running LGBT theatre anywhere." Jack Fletcher (Gabriel A. Ross) is a high school freshman in 1979 California at the time of the Briggs Initiative, a conservative effort to remove LGBT teachers from their positions in California schools. Jack is just coming to terms with his own sexuality and developing a love of theater, thanks in part to his new favorite teacher, the gentle but passionate Harry Smith (John Fisher), who is also gay, but deeply closeted—although seemingly quite comfortable in his own skin. Mr. Smith, it turns out, was a young soldier in World War II, captured by the Germans and sent to a prison camp in Poland, where the Commandant had the prisoners stage works from the Shakespeare canon.

It is when the play flashes back to 1944, to Mr. Smith's time as a prisoner, that Shakespeare Goes to War is at its very best. This is mostly due to the wonderfully fey, pretentious, and condescending Commandant Oberst Klambach (also John Fisher). From the moment he walks on stage in his beribboned uniform (being a hero of the battles of the eastern front) with his imperious attitude, he brings a light, comic touch that lifts the whole show to a new level. Everything he says or does comes from a place of perfect confidence. His way, the German way, is always better than what anything any other culture or people can come up with. Though he loves Shakespeare, he believes the best Hamlet that has ever been is in a German translation. When he makes one of his pronouncements, whether it is objectively true or not, he will confidently toss off a "This we know," as if what he has just said is such common knowledge that he is embarrassed even to have felt the need to have spoken it. Fisher's performance as Klambach is alone worth the price of admission. (Though I would suggest Fisher always have Klambach wearing his hat, as it only heightens the effect he is creating and helps separate the character from the other roles Fisher inhabits during the performance.

As Jack Fletcher and the young Harry Smith, Gabriel A. Ross is terrific—especially in the plays within the play, school and prison camp productions of Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, Othello—where he brings real zeal to the roles, especially the distaff ones. Kevin Copps also does terrific work playing a variety of roles, especially a brief turn as Ronald Reagan. (His upper-crust British officer accent needs a lot of work.)

John Fisher directs as well, and he does some excellent work, bringing real kinetic energy to the action, which takes place up and down a series of stair steps that make up the set. But perhaps his most charming directorial choice is to have all music and sound effects created by cast members standing at the back of house.

As stated above, the cast can be uneven. All five play multiple roles, some better than others. Fisher's Oberst Klambach, for example, is delightful, but his Harry Smith can sometimes fall flat. Copps' Reagan is delightful, but his portrayal of Lyle Thompson (the swishier gay teacher at the high school) lacks real heart.

Though Shakespeare Goes to War still needs a lot of work (it should probably be cut by at least 30 minutes, as it currently runs close to three hours with intermission), there's enough that works to make it worth your time. After all, how many world premieres will you get the chance to see this year?

Shakespeare Goes to War runs through November 28, 2015, at Thick House, 1695 18th Street (at Arkansas) San Francisco. Shows are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. There will also be 7:00 p.m. performances on Tuesday November 17 and Tuesday, November 24. No performance on Thursday, November 26. Tickets are $25 general, $20 for seniors and students. Tickets and additional information are available at or by calling 800-838-3006.

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