Theater Review: BEFORE THE SWORD (World Premiere at New Conservatory Theater Center)

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by Chuck Louden on September 25, 2023

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


British author Terence Hanbury “Tim” White (1906-1964), better known as T.H. White, is best-known for The Once and Future King (1958) a collection of four novels — three previously published — based on the Arthurian Legends, stories which had already been around for over a thousand years when, in 1938, White published the first part, The Sword in the Stone. Sound familiar? As with the 1961 same-titled animated adaption by Walt Disney, it chronicles Arthur’s upbringing by a foster father, a contentious relationship with a foster brother, and training by Merlyn, a wizard who lives through time backwards. Merlyn, knowing the boy’s destiny to be King of England, teaches Arthur (a.k.a. “Wart”) lessons by turning him into a variety of animals. (Two other books in The Once and Future King were source material for Camelot.)

Mark P. Robinson, Henry Halkyard, Kim Donovan,
Radhika Rao, Jeffrey Hoffman, and Adam KuveNiemann

In his World Premiere play Before the Sword, commissioned by New Conservatory Theater Center’s founder and director Ed Decker, Andrew Alty creates a moving, delightful and charming tale that fantasizes the beginnings of the book’s creation, and the results are definitely magical. Alty weaves facts about White’s life — an abusive father, being orphaned and bullied, reclusiveness, training a goshawk, drinking, misanthropic and queerness — into the play, but in surprising ways. Missing, thank goodness, is anything about White being a sexual sadist.

Adam KuveNiemann, Henry Halkyard, Kim Donovan, and Radhika Rao

Set in a post-WWI British village, the eccentric, reclusive Tim (Adam KuveNiemann ) — suffering from writer’s block — comes upon a troubled young lad in the forest. The 14-year-old Freddie (Henry Halkyard) is running from his bullying schoolmates but doesn’t divulge the reason. Freddie’s parents, the very strict military man Jonathan Wharton (Mark Robinson) and his obedient, sensitive wife Hannah (Kimberly Donovan) are at a loss as to how they should handle their defiant teenage son, who needs both discipline and an education. Freddie is drawn to the unique and somewhat outlandish professor and convinces both his parents and this unconventional author to be his tutor.

Henry Halkyard, Mark P. Robinson, and Adam KuveNiemann

Nature, animals and the great outdoors fascinated White. Here, Tim takes his new pupil under his wing and opens up a whole new world to the eager young Freddie, teaching him to notice the behavior of animals. As they bond, secrets are gradually unveiled, such as Freddie admitting to being adopted and wanting to seek out his “real” parents. Both Jonathan and Hannah become anxious as their somewhat troubled son seems to gravitate towards his new teacher and becomes more distant and rebellious, especially toward his very conservative, strict, abusive father. 

Jeffrey Hoffman and Mark P. Robinson

It wouldn’t be a New Conservatory Theater production without a same sex attraction or romance. Surprisingly, it isn’t Tim’s. Hannah’s burgeoning friendship with the self confident Vicar’s wife, Claire Reynolds (Radhika Rao), awakens feelings in her that she “dared not ever think.” Vicar Roger Reynolds (the humorous Jefferey Hoffman) is not at all shocked or surprised by his wife’s special friendship; he himself is queer. Freddie’s journey takes a violent turn and loyalties are tested as he continues to grow and seek direction in his future.

Radhika Rao and Kim Donovan

Although of course we all are rooting for Freddie and his journey, I found Hannah’s awakening equally if not more interesting. Donovan’s performance is radiant and I found myself always watching her gestures, reactions and coming into her new sense of self even when she’s just reacting to all that is happening with her child and violent husband (awesome fight choreography by Kristen Matia).

Kim Donovan, Radhika Rao, Jeffrey Hoffman,
Mark P. Robinson, Adam KuveNiemann, and Henry Halkyard

Decker does a sensitive job with his actors, all of whom excel as people who have their own unique point of view and coping skills as the story evolves. Keri Fitch‘s costumes are very reflective of the 1930s (Hannah’s transformation from her drab housewife attire to a beautiful purple evening dress is a wonderful contrast). Lit with time-shifting accuracy by Christian Mejia, Devin Kasper‘s magnificent set morphs between forest and home, just as the scenes do. With the trees, leaves, special nooks and crannies, and chirping birds (sound by Kalon Thibodeaux), we are taken into this beautiful world from a time gone by.

Kim Donovan, Mark P. Robinson, Jeffrey Hoffman, and Radhika Rao

photos by Lois Tema

Kim Donovan and Adam KuveNiemann

Before the Sword
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. in San Francisco
ends on October 15, 2023
for tickets, call 415.861.8972 or visit NCTC

 Henry Halkyard, Kim Donovan, Radhika Rao, and Adam KuveNiemann

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