Andrew Alty Conjures Magical Myth-Maker of Sword in the Stone
by Barry David Horwitz
We could be in Sherwood Forest with Robin Hood or with Toad and Badger in Wind in the Willows. Set Designer Devin Kasper’s lush tree trunks frame the story of a wayward student and a poetic hermit—under a stage full of magnificent boughs and leaves.
In “Before the Sword,” we meet myth-maker T.H. White, played by a philosophical Adam KuveNiemann. A bit mad, White comically pursues his escaped hawk. Andrew Alty’s writer lives in a cabin in those woods—an English Thoreau.
When oddball Tim White loses his job as teacher at the boys’ school in Stowe, in the English countryside, he stays in a cabin in the woods. Tim immerses himself in wildlife and imagination. Even the at home family scenes are beautifully set in the woods. Fluid, inspired Director Ed Decker uses brilliant lights and colors to create stunning, symbolic scenes.
In the woods, White is accidentally discovered by 15-year-old Freddie (intriguing Henry Halkyard), who is bullied and chased by his school “chums.”
In the 1930s, war with Germany was rumbling. The coming war and his isolation lead White to imagine a revival of King Arthur’s story, playing Merlin to young Freddie’s Arthur. Eventually, his work gave Brits inspiration to fight extreme evil in WWII.
But White doesn’t want company, even less a student. And Freddie doesn’t want a teacher either—but his ill-matched parents insist. White stands up for the monumentally miserable boy—even against his abusive, troubled father (explosive Mark P. Sullivan).
From White, Freddie learns to connect with Nature—hawks, raccoons, birds, snakes—the best education ever. White takes him on hunts in the forest that sweep across the stage, including us in the story.
There’s a stone down front that brings a pang by the end—the stone of British fable. But first, we enjoy the slow dance of learning and acceptance between Tim and Freddie—while both hide secrets they cannot share.
They connect as tutor and pupil, becoming Merlin and Arthur. Lushly bearded KuveNeimann creates a smart, skittish, and quirky bohemian writer, with a deep but fleeting connection to the boy. As Freddie, Halkyard touchingly embodies an enlightened 1930s Holden Caulfield—misunderstood and isolated, way ahead of his time. Halkyard’s an actor to watch for—perfect for the “the once and future king.”
The gay theme has been shifted to some other wonderful actors. Freddie’s mom Hannah—played by the mesmerizing Kim Donovan in an electric and quicksilver performance—discovers her own same sex longings. And Helen, her friend (delightful Radhika Rao) offers exciting lesbian love. Together they elicit our full empathy.
Their husbands, Freddie’s Dad and the Vicar (jovial Jeffrey Hoffman) have other ideas. As the father, Sullivan stunningly reveals the suffering of a WWI veteran with PTSD. And Hoffman, as the Vicar, shivers in dread of being outed. Decker paints a brutal pre-war world.
No one is safe when extremists are looking for victims to blame—like immigrants, drag artists,or trans people, now. T.H. White creates his enduring myth of heroism while cleverly concealing multiple identities. Aldy’s play shows a writer finding his theme in real life. Freddie inspires his young Arthur, later ennobled in White’s 1938 Sword in the Stone.
As an outcast, White makes myth and history. But he pays a high price in Aldy’s touching, poignant fable—a charming story that’s guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye. True stage magic.
“Before the Sword” by Andrew Alty, directed by Ed Decker, costumes designed by Keri Fitch, props designed by Jorge R. Hernandez, set designed by Devin Kasper, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, San Francisco. Info: nctcsf.org – to October 15, 2023.
Cast: Kim Donovan, Henry Halkyard, Jeffrey Hoffman, Adam KuveNiemann, Radhika Rao, and Mark P. Robinson.
Banner photo: Adam KuveNiemann, Henry Halkyard, Kim Donovan, & Radhika Rao. Photos: Lois Tema