The plot synopsis in the program for Friedrich Schiller's "Wallenstein" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company begins: "It is 1634. The Thirty Years' War has been raging across Europe for 15 years." And yet the first words of the play, freely and exquisitely adapted by former American Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, are: "Forget about the Thirty Years' War."

This collision between actual history and Pinsky's suggestion that "Wallenstein" is about more than the Thirty Years' War is the main reason that this "Wallenstein" doesn't seem like a dusty vision of a verse play first performed in 1798. Starting with Schiller's magnificent three-play magnum opus, Pinsky envisions a war-torn Europe as a great canvas on which are displayed massive national grasps for power and even larger individual egos.

The story tells of famous Bohemian leader Albrecht von Wallenstein (Steve Pickering), supreme commander of the Holy Roman Emperor's army, who has gathered the largest fighting force ever assembled in Europe, made up of mercenaries intensely loyal to him. Director Michael Kahn emphasizes the lengths to which Wallenstein will go to assure that his men revere their leader: Like a modern-day general wanting to impress his troops, Wallenstein greets his soldiers personally, remembering their names and brave deeds.

If you go
» Where: Shakespeare Theatre Company, Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW
» When: Through June 2
» Info: $43 to $105; 202-547-1122;

As the play begins, Wallenstein's oldest friend, Octavio Palladini (Robert Sicular) arrives in the camp with a diplomat, Questenberg (Philip Goodwin) sent by the emperor from Vienna. When Questenberg presents Wallenstein with the emperor's command to travel to Milan, Wallenstein threatens to quit the emperor's service. Privately, Wallenstein plans to negotiate a peace with the Swedes, an endeavor through which he believes he will gain great power. He demands that his generals sign an unconditional oath of loyalty to him.

Kahn skillfully outlines the ups and downs of Wallenstein's behavior and that of his generals. Everywhere there are shifting acts of loyalty, betrayal and double-cross. Wallenstein is a flawed individual, but as Pinsky has written him and Pickering portrays him, he is an eminently likeable double-dealer, a man who is propelled by realistic rather than idealistic motives.

Kahn's ensemble works beautifully together. Particularly noteworthy are the performances of Pickering, Nick Dillenburg as Max Palladini, Derrick Lee Weeden as Kolibas and Aaryn Kopp as Wallenstein's daughter.

Blythe R.D. Quinlan's gray, pocked, concrete set effectively uses the considerable height of Sidney Harman Hall. Murell Horton has created effective, evocative period costumes.

"Wallenstein" is conjoined with Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" in what the Shakespeare Theatre Company is calling the Hero/Traitor Repertory, in which both plays deal with men who are considered saviors of their people yet eventually turn against their countrymen. It is a fascinating pairing and neither play should be missed.