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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
I'm sworn to uphold the law. I cannot break the law, even if I disagree with the law. — General Benjamin Butler
David Shramm

David Schramm(Photo credit: Kevin Sprague)
Barrington Stage Company opens the 2015 season at the St. Germain theatre with the unusual production of Richard Strand's Butler based on an actual historical event of the American Civil War.

On May 23, 1861, less than a month into the war, three slaves rowed across the James river in Virginia to claim asylum at Fort Monroe, an isolated Union post in the heartland of the rebellious south. They had been forced to build military fortifications for the Confederacy on the other side of the river in North Carolina and this action set off a series of events that challenged the Union's position on the slavery issue.

As the play opens, General Butler (David Schramm,) a lawyer by profession, has arrived at the fort as its commander and is trying to familiarize himself with his new political appointment in a state that just hours previously had seceded from the Union. Butler seems beleaguered by the realities of the actual job in the very witty opening scenes where he uses Lt. Kelly (Ben Cole,) a West Point graduate as a verbal dart board of conflicting ideas delivered with intimidating bluster.

The hapless Kelly has arrived to announce a new hitch in the major general's life — three young escaped slaves have arrived and one of them, Shepard Mallory (Maurice Jones) has demanded an audience. The word "demand" is one of the buzzwords on which the play pivots.

The ensuing verbal sparring between the slyly clever and argumentative Butler and the proud, educated and even insolent Mallory centers around the slaves' bid to be conscripted into the Union army and Butler's conundrum; to honor the Fugitive Slave Act and return the slaves to certain death or to disobey orders of the non-interference policy and face court-martial because of his humanistic and/or strategic inclinations. Butler does not have time to weigh all the relative merits of the case before the imperious Confederate Major Cary (John Hickok) arrives to demand the return of the slaves on behalf of their owner Colonel Mallory.

Butler himself is the fulcrum of the North's attitude toward slavery, having rejected abolition and voted for Jefferson Davis and yet here he is faced with a political land mine. More legal and political maneuvering between Butler and Cary lead to a brilliant hope of escape on Butler's part.

Director Joseph Discher and Schramm's Butler lend an air of situation comedy rather than a succinct, knowing sarcastic take on the surreal and convoluted arguments (think Werner Klemperer's Colonel Klink of television's Hogan's Heroes versus Spencer Tracy's Drummond in Inherit the Wind) surrounding slavery as in the idea of humans as "property."

But all four characters are intrinsic to the telling of this unique bit of history. The arguments put forth by each character build to a satisfying denouement, one that will have repercussions far beyond what any of them could have foreseen.

All of the action takes place on a beautifully detailed set by Brian Prather with costumes by Jennifer Caprio and Matthew Adelson's moody lighting. But in this simple claustrophobic room a decision is made whose implications changed the course of history.

For a review of Butler when it played in New Jersey (different cast and director), go here .

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Butler by Richard Strand
Director: Joseph Discher
Cast: David Schramm (Major General Benjamin Butler) Ben Cole (Lieutenant Kelly) Maurice Jones (Shepard Mallonory) John Hickok (Major Cary)
Scenic Designer: Brian Prather
Costume Designer: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting Designer: Matthew Adelson
Sound Designer: Patrick Calhoun
Wig/Makeup Designers: David Bova, J. Jared Janas
Fight Choreographer: Ryan Winkles
Dialect Coach: Wendy Waterman
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes; one intermission Barrington Stage Company's St Germain Theatre, 36 Linden St., Pittsfield, MA (413) 236-8888
Tickets: $40.00
Performances: Tuesday through Saturday 7:30; Saturday at 4:00; Sunday at 3:00; added matinees June 4 and 11 at 4:00
From 05/14/15 Opened 05/20/15 Ends 6/13/15
Review by Gloria Miller based on performance 05/20/15

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