“Art must always be dangerous,” a theater-loving German POW camp commander tells Harry, a young American prisoner, in Theatre Rhinoceros’ new play by John Fisher, “Shakespeare Goes to War.” Harry has been ordered to direct a camp production of ‘Romeo and Juliet” and also play Juliet.
It might have been a good idea for Rhino artistic director Fisher — who also directed and plays three of the roles — to take the German officer’s advice.
Overlong at 2 3/4 hours, the drama, set in the late 1970s and toward the end of World War II, is occasionally touching — for example, when narrator Jack (an earnest and at times charming Gabriel A. Ross) navigates high school.
Sometimes it’s also comic, most notably when Jack asks his cynical father (Fisher, at his dry best in this role) for romantic advice.
And it is certainly heartfelt and personal: The adult Harry (Fisher, again, relying too heavily on a continual broad smile) is Jack’s devoted high school English and drama teacher, and Fisher himself has taught drama at universities and at American Conservatory Theater.
Throughout the show, Jack relates and enacts his high school years, during which teacher Harry inspires him to become an actor. Also influenced by others, Jack discovers his own homosexuality and gets in touch with his inner political activist.
In the middle of the play, as teacher Harry begins to tell Jack about falling in love with theater in the German prison camp, Jack takes on the persona of the younger Harry, and the time period and scene shift.
Here, Harry’s mentor is the camp commander (Fisher again), who’s passionate about not only Shakespeare but also Brecht, who “rewrote Shakespeare for the now,” as he informs Harry in a lengthy, passionate and didactic speech. Their relationship parallels the one between Jack and adult Harry.
Fisher explores various worthy themes: mentor/mentee relationships, especially when the mentor is deeply flawed; the value of art and its relevance to real-world concerns; coming-of-age struggles; racism and homophobia.
Unfortunately those themes are diluted.
That’s because Fisher devotes too much stage time to scenes from Shakespeare plays as performed by Jack and his high school classmates and by POW Harry and his prison mates. Shakespeare’s scenes highlight the uneven Rhino cast (although Kevin Copps is amusing in several roles) and the weaknesses in Fisher’s not-very-adventurous script.
Shakespeare Goes to War
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Thick House, 1695 18th St., S.F.
When: Wednesdays-Sundays, closes Nov. 28
Tickets: $10 to $35
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.therhino.org