NYC-based Actor and Veteran Channels Shakespeare

Photo by Giancarlo Sepulveda

The words of William Shakespeare melded with modern performance art Monday night, as New York City-based actor and US Army veteran Stephan Wolfert performed “Cry Havoc.” Wolfert's one-man play chronicled the experiences of combat veterans before a large audience in the Berrie Center’s Sharp Theater.

The play focuses upon issues facing men and women who have served in the military, who return from active duty to find themselves unable to adjust to civilian life. Wolfert reenacted key events from his own life, combining his own lines with Shakespeare's to describe the psychological damage often inflicted upon those who serve in the armed forces.

Moving about onstage with manic energy, Wolfert described his recruitment into the army, which he saw as a way to escape from a broken home. Eventually, he became a medic and an officer in charge of his own unit of men.

Wolfert left the military after six years of service, after experiencing an epiphany during a performance of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” in a small Montana town during the 1990s. The following day, he bought a copy of the play and decided to pursue a life in the theater.

Wolfert said he had always harbored an interest in acting and dance, but had not pursued his passions because he grew up in a culture where such activities were frowned upon.

“On the north side of Lacrosse, Wisconsin, this,” he said, dancing, “was for fags.”

The actor concluded his performance by questioning the state of veterans’ affairs in America today, asking the audience before him, “What now?”

Several veterans – some of whom are students of Ramapo – attended the event, and rose to several rounds of applause after Wolfert momentarily exited the stage. A few ascended the stage to share their stories with the audience.

One veteran highlighted his struggles with alcohol and painkiller dependency; another discussed a healing journey he took to Israel as a beneficiary of Heroes to Heroes, an organization devoted to veterans’ welfare that aided in sponsoring the event.

A student-created organization, The Next Step, hosted Wolfert’s appearance. Formed by Ariana Garbaccio and Kylan O’Shea, two global communications majors at the College, the organization is dedicated to serving Ramapo’s veterans and raising PTSD awareness. After Wolfert’s performance, the seniors discussed what spurred the creation of their organization:

“The school has received awards for being veteran-friendly, we’re ranked number 20, or number 22, for best veteran’s schools in the northeast region, but we didn’t feel that there was anything showing for it,” said Garbaccio. “We didn’t have a veteran’s office, we didn’t have a veteran’s lounge and we didn’t have a veteran community.”

Dr. Peter Scheckner of the Salemeno School of Humanities and Global Studies first saw Wolfert perform “Cry Havoc” at Colombia University and recommended the show to The Next Step through his wife, fellow professor Patricia Keeton.

While praising the play and the veterans who attended, Scheckner deplored America’s continued involvement in the Middle East:

“America has been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for well over a decade… you read today’s New York Times, Marines are still to this day being killed with no end in sight in Iraq and absolutely no end in sight in Afghanistan,” he said. “The number of people that the United States has been responsible for killing and maiming in those two countries, and indirectly in Syria, has undeniably given rise to ISIS.”

The literature professor was deeply moved by Wolfert’s use of Shakespeare, saying of the play, “It’s so extremely emotive, heartfelt, genuine and dramatic. The fact that he uses Shakespeare to rehabilitate himself is really inspirational, and shows you what literature can do.”