Pleading and Reading the Fifth

Phrases and lines from Shakespeare’s Henry V have made their way into popular culture, no doubt spawned by film adaptations. “Once more unto the breach” gets referenced, while every Hollywood scriptwriter has to come up with his/her own version of Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech just before a battle scene. (See this year’s “Pacific Rim” and Idris Elba’s “Today, we are canceling the Apocalypse!” speech for one example.)

Likewise, Casey Caldwell’s “We Happy Few” quotes from the same text for his experimental play, opening tonight at the Public Library and then popping up at various venues around the county — at the Solvang Veterans’ Memorial Building and the Santa Barbara Veterans Building, at UCSB, and at the Unitarian Society. This time, the play will be sampled much more.

Mr. Caldwell’s Ratatat Theatre Group started in 2008. This is his fifth production.

“We Happy Few” is based on interviews with three generations of vets — World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq — faithfully transcribed and mixed together with selections of Shakespeare’s play. “It’s what I call ‘remix theater,'” Mr. Caldwell says. “It’s a collage.”

Mr. Caldwell attended Westmont College, studied theater and graduated in 2008. Yes, he did find his “band of brothers” in theater, but it can be a fleeting feeling, he says. The play is finished and the people go home. He began to think about other similar experiences in life.

“Veterans know what it’s like to fight for a cause, but have also seen how that cause can let us down.” Mr. Caldwell says. “Whatever their experience was, good or bad, they all talked about the principles the military stands for, of brotherhood and sacrifice for your country. They all believed in those, but also saw how those ideas cause pain.”

Mr. Caldwell drew his interviews from locals, and said that in the case of World War II and Vietnam vets, they had come to terms with their wars. Iraq and Afghanistan vets, on the other hand, were still of two minds about what they did. ”

“We Happy Few” jumps back and forth between Henry V and Mr. Caldwell’s veterans. For each stage of Henry’s march to battle, they are contrasted with a modern experience, until both sources begin to blur.

The process of producing the play took years. Mr. Caldwell experimented with structure, tailored some scenes for certain actors, only to have them drop. “Casting was unusually drawn out for this,” he says.

The cast includes actors from 18 to 81 years old, featuring Kasey Eldred, Stephanie Farnum, Paul Nay, Stuart Orenstein, and Justin Stark. They sit in a circle of chairs and the only prop is a crown.

“We’ve pared it down to exactly what needs to be there,” Mr. Caldwell says. “The concept is that it’s all about the story, the words, and the memories.”

‘We Happy Few’
When: 8 p.m. tonight, and through Nov. 16 at other venues
Where: Santa Barbara Public Library, 40 E. Anapamu St. (additional shows at other locations)
Cost: This performance free. Some shows: $10

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