Hapsburgs of a Feather: Wallenstein aids and betrays the Holy Roman Empire.
Hapsburgs of a Feather: Wallenstein aids and betrays the Holy Roman Empire.

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The best joke in Michael Kahn’s iron and irony-clad production of Wallenstein is the first one. A context setting title crawl is projected against the smooth, stony edifice of a set, then flickers out before you can read more than a few sentences. “First of all, forget the Thirty Years War,” our spectral, eponymous narrator begins, as though exhausted from setting the stage for the 215 years’ worth of audiences that have preceded us.

It was 1798 when Schiller completed his trilogy of plays about the supreme military commander of the Hapsburg Monarchy. Wallenstein’s storied career ended, along with Wallenstein, in 1634—year No. 16 or so of that continent-swallowing conflagration we’ve been instructed to forget—after he went rogue and trusted his men would follow him rather than Emperor Ferdinand II. It was a rare miscalculation.

To whom or what warriors owe their allegiance emerges as the central question of the Shakespeare Theatre’s handsome and compelling new update of this material, “freely adapted” and compressed to a lean two and a half hours by Robert Pinsky. Do soldiers kill and bleed for their commander in the field? For the lowly private marching next to them? For a monarch or politician back home? What if they’re not actually citizens of the country in whose army they’re serving?

The “honorable” rationales for mass slaughter often buckle under examination, a truth that our Wallenstein—a brilliantly, pragmatically bald Steve Pickering—tries to impress upon his younger, more idealistic and luxuriously forelocked subordinate, Max (Nick Dillenburg), with predictable results. Max, who’s in love with Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla, finds himself torn between his prospective father-in-law and his father, whom the emperor, having lost patience with Wallenstein’s surfeit of independence, has waiting in the wings to replace the aging general. Eventually Wallenstein will tell us Schiller made Max up, as if to explain why the young lovers’ subplot feels so perfunctory and inert.

Like all the best stage schemers, Wallenstein makes the audience privy to his thoughts, and these out-of-time, self-aware addresses are where both Pinsky and Pickering shine brightest. “They named a board game after me,” he points out, adding that Coriolanus, the star of the play running in rep with this one, never rated such an honor.

The set, by Blythe R.D. Quinlan, appears to be a smooth, Brutalist stone tower but aptly reveals hidden doors and levels throughout the show as the stealthy agendas come to light. (It’s not a web of intrigue so much as a quarry of it.) These well-concealed passageways, along with Mark McCullough’s green-hued, disease-evoking lighting scheme, allow Kahn to create indelible stage pictures. A chorus of armored Grenadiers materializes on an elevated platform, reciting and then singing a Schiller poem with the refrain, “Hope is never wrong.” As ever at the Shakespeare Theatre, sets change rapidly as tables vanish into the floor and chairs glide away on frictionless bearings, but it all seems like an aesthetic choice rather than a reminder that the company can afford it.

In Act 2, Wallenstein introduces us to a wan-looking urchin, a victim of the Thirty Years War. The child draws a line across his own throat with his finger, then sings one of Schiller’s pieces in German. It’s all mournful and ruminative, a reminder that the most celebrated warriors have oceans of blood on their hands. No one knows better than our world-weary but still charismatic anti-hero, wary to his last breath of “this grating need for greatness.”