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A CurtainUp Boston Review
A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration
Back then, you could actually walk up to the White House and knock on the front door. Back then, the people of the United States were actually the President's boss.—Karen MacDonald
Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas, the holiday offering at the Huntington Theater, is a grandly, even madly ambitious, event. On Christmas Eve, 1864, we career from the battlefields of northern Virginia (full of African-American soldiers) to Mary Todd Lincoln hunting down a Bavarian-style Christmas tree, to a little girl lost in the snow while fleeing imaginary slave-catchers. This is a noble step towards the creation of a new genre in American theater, a hybrid of British pantomime, a church pageant, and a Dickens novel with a multicultural spin.
Ken Cheeseman (President Abraham Lincoln) and Karen MacDonald (Mary Todd Lincoln) in the Huntington Theatre Company's production of Paula Vogel's A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration.
Vogel's latest offering is a panoramic companion piece to her earlier play on family trauma, The Long Christmas Ride Home. It presents an alternative to the ubiquitous repertory productions of A Christmas Carol or, more recently, The Santaland Diaries.
Dan Ostling's scenic design, with a ripped American flag hanging from the rafters and a simple wooden scaffold, permits the kind of fluid staging and sudden shifts in time and space usually reserved for Shakespeare productions. Daryl Waters, credit as music supervisor as well as arranger, crafts a continuous tapestry of holiday songs, American hymns, and spirituals — often surprisingly intercut and always beautifully performed. Hearing the Kaddish wrapped around "Silent Night" is both beautiful and unsettling, a mixture of traditions that doesn't quite settle peacefully in a single melting pot.
Indeed, the whole bustling production, in which characters narrate each other's roles and their own, features so many strands that it's difficult to unspool them all. Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant make cameos. A comic Abraham Lincoln (Ken Cheeseman) rides through the night to fetch kid gloves for his bipolar wife. John Wilkes Booth plots a botched revenge. The play labors to round up at least eight central plot lines to provide a precariously unified conclusion around a massive Christmas tree.
Vogel aims to show the tense unity-in-difference that has always made up American life, though the play straddles (and occasionally trips on) a fine line between inclusiveness and tokenism. This is smart historical revisionism and Vogel notes that an African village lived below stairs in the Lincoln White House, and that Jews served in the Union army. But it's also a suspicious assertion of community through shared actions and song that projects a dubious utopia into the past.
Civil War. . . is most successful as an account of American life as shared pain over irrecoverable losses. Nearly every character in the massive line-up is haunted by death. Vengeful soldier Decatur Bronson (Gilbert Glenn Brown) has lost his wife, Rose; Mary Todd Lincoln (Karen MacDonald) mourns her dead son Willie; her confidante Elizabeth Keckley (Jacqui Parker, who has a dazzling voice) mourns her own dead boy, George.
The most beautiful scene comes in the second half, when Mrs. Keckley dreams of her childhood and her son. It's difficult to give this hybrid of spiritual uplift and deep grief the lightness it needs to keep up the necessary momentum, though Jessica Thebus' direction is nimble, more like choreography than traditional blocking.
Structurally, the piece is a marvelous confection, interspersing past and present, heartache and whimsy, with several dollops of distinctly American sentimentality. However, the aftertaste is decidedly bittersweet.
Perhaps the greatest triumph of the production is Molly Schreiber's protean performance as a young man escaping on horseback into military service, the conspirator Anna Surratt, and a braying mule, among other roles. Her incredible quick changes demonstrate an ideal of transformability that Americans, then and now, can only dream of.
A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration |
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Jessica Thebus
Music supervised, arranged, and orchestrated by Daryl Waters
Cast: Uzo Aduba (Hannah, Rose, Aggy, Matron), Chris Bannow (Chester Manton Saunders, Hay, John Surratt, Union Soldier), Jason Bowen (Willy Mack, Walker Lewis, Jim Wormley), Gilbert Glenn Brown (Decatur Bronson, James Wormley, Philip Ree), Ken Cheeseman (Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Silver), Ed Hoopman (John Wilkes Booth, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumsah Sherman, Raider 2, Mary Surratt, Union Soldier), Karen MacDonald (Mary Todd Lincoln, Secretary or War Stanton, Widow Saunders), DeLance Minefee (Ely Parker, George's Ghost, Frederick Wormley, Moses Levy, Louis J. Wiechmann, Reverend Brown), Jacqui Parker (Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Thomas), Stephen Russell (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ulysses S. Grant, War Hill Lamon, Lewish Payne, Raider 1, Burwell, Minister), Molly Schreiber (Raz, Anna Surratt, Nicolay, Clara Barton, Mule), Alanna T. Logan (Jessa at select performances), Hyacinth Tauriac (Jessa at select performances)
Musicians: Andrew Resnick (Conductor/Piano), Morgan Evans-Weiler (Fiddle)
Scenic Design: Dan Ostling
Costume Design: Miranda Hoffman
Lighting Design: T. J. Gerckens
Sound Design: Ben Emerson
Casting: Alaine Alldaffer
Production Stage Manager: Gail P. Luna
Stage Manager: Leslie Sears
Boston University Theater, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston (617) 266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
From 11/13/09; opening 11/18/09, closing 12/13/09
Evenings: Tues.-Thurs. at 7:30pm; Fri-Sat. at 8pm; Select Sun. at 7pm and Mon. at 7:30pm
Matinees: Select Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2pm
Reviewed by Lawrence Switzky based on 11/21/09 performance
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