Many Americans confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and only register at some level that these two holidays have something to do with men and women in uniform. The more thoughtful might read a book or watch a TV special. Actor and playwright Casey Caldwell has raised the thoughtfulness bar much higher. The artistic director of Ratatat Theater Group interviewed nearly two dozen area veterans and then carefully meshed their words with a skeletal edit of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The result is Happy Few, a full-body immersion into the passions and vagaries of war as experienced through the hearts and shattered nerves of those who know it best.
This Friday-evening performance, on Veterans Day weekend, at the Santa Barbara Veterans Memorial building, was certainly the most meaningful observance of the holiday that I have ever known. In accord with Ratatat’s vision of theater as a community encounter, Caldwell and five other actors have been taking Happy Few to various locations about town.
Critics have long been divided regarding Shakespeare’s intent in Henry V — a play which follows the build-up, the conflict, and the aftermath of the Battle of Agincourt (1415) — some reading an antiwar message, others seeing a vindication of national sovereignty. One of the remarkable things about Caldwell’s creation is its transcendence of politics, its refusal to put the messy, bloody business of warfare into a tidy package. Happy Few doesn’t pretend to do your thinking for you. Instead, it gives audiences an existential encounter with the raw emotions and candid reflections of veterans who are compelled to wrestle with their memories. And like war itself, that inner battle for meaning can be a matter of life or death.