LENOX >> Stephan Wolfert's life changed in the most unlikely way in the most unlikely place — witnessing a live performance of William Shakespeare's "Richard III" in a theater in a Montana town of about 4,000. It was enough for this U.S. Army medical and infantry officer to give up his military career after seven years to become an actor.
It was an inevitable outcome for a young man from a working-class family in a working-class neighborhood in a working-class town — LaCrosse, Wisc. His father was an alcoholic; his mother, stern and rigid.
Wolfert harbored ambitions of becoming a dancer but in a culture in which manly men did manly things, dance was considered anything but manly — Wolfert tells in his intense, exquisitely performed solo show, "Cry 'Havoc!'" at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre of being beaten up by an older brother when he is found improvising classical ballet steps in the basement of their house.
His options limited, Wolfert, 18 years old at the time, turned to the Army. He saw duty in Afghanistan; cradled the shattered head of his best friend who would die one week later of devastating mortal injuries sustained in a horrifying incident during a training mission in the California desert, an episode that still haunts the now 49-year-old Wolfert.
"Richard III" opened a world of possibility for Wolfert; a world in which he could hide, and heal, in plain sight; eventually teach other veterans to do the same. He got an MFA from Trinity Repertory Conservatory Theatre in Providence, R.I.; created military sequences for the Twyla Tharp-Billy Joel dance musical, "Movin' Out"; became founding artistic director of Shakespeare & Veterans; and joined "Cry 'Havoc!'" director Eric Tucker's New York-based theater company, Bedlam, as an actor and as head of outreach.
"Cry 'Havoc!'" is at once intensely personal while, at the same time, it reaches out not only to veterans in need but to a broader community that, Wolfert insists, needs to understand the plight of veterans and come to their aid, welcoming veterans and taking them in, nurturing and healing them collectively in the manner of several Southwest Native American tribes.
Wolfert argues that the military does a miserable job of preparing its soldiers for reentry into society between tours of duty and when their military service is done. The military makes a point, he says, of recruiting young men and women at a "malleable age" and "wiring them for war," without, then, "unwiring" them, "decruiting" them before dumping them back into their home communities without resources to survive.
Wolfert's insights into PTSD, its damage and collateral damage, are stunning and enlightening. Without self-pity but with a sense of urgency and compassion, Wolfert charts the damage wreaked by a system that is rife with sexual hostility toward women recruits; that turns a blind eye to the accomplishments of minorities (Wolfert's account of the selfless heroism of black soldier Henry Lincoln Johnson — an Albany, N.Y. native — during World War I is vivid and filled with depressing irony).
Wolfert meaningfully and seamlessly weaves various soliloquies from Shakespeare (the title is drawn from Mark Antony's oration on the death of Julius Caesar) into his narrative, a technique that, in less skillful hands, would be little more than pretentious gimmickry.
Wolfert is a galvanic, at times frenzied, performer with a captivating, thoroughly engaging personality. Even in those rare moments when he is still, he remains in motion. He is far too modest about his considerable skills as a dancer, which he places on full display in a concluding sequence set to Bruno Mars' "The Other Side" in which Wolfert summarizes in dance key elements and episodes from his narrative.
To a degree, "Cry 'Havoc!'" is one long dance, set to the often dissonant music of Wolfert's life; executed with remarkable finesse and grace. He is man possessed, in the way that the most gifted artists, no matter the medium, are possessed by the need to tell their story.
"For me," Wolfert said in a talkback, "this is therapy every time I do it." For us as well.
What: "Cry 'Havoc!'" Written and performed by Stephan Wolfert. Directed by Eric Tucker
Who: Shakespeare & Company
Where: Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, 70 Kemble St., Lenox
When: Through Aug. 13. Evenings — Friday, Wednesday, Thursday and Aug. 13 at 8:30. Matinee — Saturday at 3
Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes (followed by talkback after 15-minute intermission)
How: 413-637-3353; shakespeare.org; in person at Shakespeare & Company box office — 70 Kemble St.