Political factions breed anarchy
in O War at Muhlenberg College
Holly Cate’s take on Shakespearean violence
storms Empie Theatre March 27-31
by Sarah Jae Leiber
Part two of Holly Cate's fierce, visceral adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry tetralogy charges onto the Muhlenberg College stage March 27-31.
O War is the follow-up to last spring's "Glory," which detailed political causes and effects in the early days of the English Wars of the Roses. In O War, politics is out the window—battle is in progress, and destruction of the social order is imminent.
"The play is an exploration of humanity and the various ways it is affected by inequity, power or lack thereof, manipulation and war," says Jessica Orelus '19, who plays the powerful, devious Warwick. "It's about who we are in war, in violence, in love, and who we are after."
"There's a sensation of chaos, of not knowing what's what — a sense of profound disorientation," says director and Muhlenberg theater professor Troy Dwyer. "Glory was orderly in a way, and became increasingly disordered. O War turns the world upside down."
Dwyer steps into the role of director after playing the villainous Cardinal Winchester last spring in Glory. Playwright and theater professor Holly Cate directed the previous installment.
"It's nice to only have one creative brain at a time in rehearsal," Cate says. "There's always the temptation for the director to just stage the thing, to make it work. I really appreciate the opportunity to edit as we go."
"I only had to worry about my character in Glory," Dwyer says. "It wasn't my job to be considerate of stuff I wasn't involved in. I had one binder for Glory, my script and notes and journal. I have six binders for 'O War,' and they're all gigantic."
O War has been a massive undertaking — its company boasts thirty-eight student actors, divided into three categories: Nobles, Clowns, and Dogs of War.
"The play and the characters that inhabit it are so heightened," says Josh Young '19, who plays Charles, the larger-than-life king of France. "The huge battle that takes place in act one creates this really visceral, horrible, realistic feeling of being in the middle of a war.
"I'm really enjoying living out my fantasy of being on Game of Thrones," he says.
Indeed, act one of O War culminates in an enormous, earth-shaking battle — one the cast and crew has named "Mother," as in "the mother of all battles." Creating something that monumental required collaboration from a team of experts, including Dwyer, choreographer Jeffrey Peterson, and fight director Claire Warden, who also fills a new role in the production: intimacy director.
Warden is a working actor and certified intimacy director and fight director who has worked on many high-profile projects in all capacities. The presence of an intimacy director in particular sets O War apart from previous Muhlenberg productions — and in fact, from productions all over the world.
"The violence of genocide can include all kinds of gestures, which can include acts of sexual violence," Dwyer says. "When we're asking actors to use their bodies to help us tell those stories, we need to ask for their consent. That consent may not be part of that standard 'contract' that an actor makes with a production.
"Claire's work is aware of the way in which that touch isn't pedestrian human activity," he says. "That's actually intimate activity. And my conversations with Claire have revealed that telling stories of violence is also telling stories of human intimacy."
Peterson's expertise in modern dance and Laban movement analysis has informed his choreography, which abstracts what an audience member might expect from onstage violence and death.
"The content in the show is vivid and relentless," says Peterson, a Muhlenberg dance faculty member. "As a community of artistic collaborators, we have our emotional work cut out for us.
"It's my job to alter what feels normal, to distort reality whenever we're portraying a death," he says.
Another innovation of this production is the offstage ensemble, known among the company as the Dogs of War. This group of 19 actors adds an aural element to the brutal environment of the piece, under the direction of musical director and soundscape designer Benedict Dawn-Cross '20.
"I've been collaborating with the rest of my ensemble in a way I've never been asked to collaborate before," says Jonathan Fleming '20, a member of the Dogs of War.
The Dogs of War will not be seen onstage. They will be offstage, in the wings, rendering the sounds of battle and creating soundscapes to punctuate the onstage combat.
"We don't have to worry so much about physical presence, but we contribute so much to the aural environment," Fleming says. "It's our job to affect the audience in a way that is unlike what an actor does onstage."
For many of the onstage actors, connecting with the seemingly random cruelty of war has been challenging.
"There is a lot of intense emotional trauma that we had to uncover to understand why we're putting on this show," says Rae Wessel '19, who is playing one of the Clowns in the production. "I love getting to work with my small ensemble to crack jokes and give the audience a break in order to keep pushing forward."
Cate says the Clowns are one of the most recognizable elements carrying over from Glory. Most other aspects of the production will feel brand new, Dwyer says.
"Glory was like a really rare fancy cocktail from a fine cocktail bar, something with unusual ingredients, something expertly crafted," he says. "O War isn't a cocktail. It's a straight shot of whiskey. And not expensive whiskey—effective whiskey. It will make your head spin."
O War plays Mar. 27-31. Showtimes are Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Regular admission tickets are $15. Tickets for youth and LVAIC students and staff are $8. The production is recommended for mature audiences.
Tickets can be purchased online at muhlenberg.edu/theatre or by phone at 484-664-3333. Performances are in the Empie Theatre in the Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College, 2400 West Chew St., Allentown.
Founded in 1848, Muhlenberg is a highly selective, private, four-year residential, liberal arts college located in Allentown, Pa., approximately 90 miles west of New York City. With an undergraduate enrollment of approximately 2,200 students, Muhlenberg College is dedicated to shaping creative, compassionate, collaborative leaders through rigorous academic programs in the arts, humanities, natural sciences and social sciences as well as selected pre-professional programs, including accounting, business, education and public health. A member of the Centennial Conference, Muhlenberg competes in 22 varsity sports. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Muhlenberg offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. The Princeton Review ranked Muhlenberg’s theater program in the top twelve in the nation for eight years in a row, and Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance. The department was founded in 1983; the theater major was established in 1978, and the dance major was established in 1993.