Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Heartfelt Play With Song Bites Off Too Much Story

Cast members in A Civil War Christmas (Robert Wade)
A Civil War Christmas – An American Musical Celebration
Taproot Theatre
Through December 27, 2017

An endearing and hard-working cast brings to life a tapestry of stories set around Christmas Eve, 1864. Figures of note in the Civil War are present, including President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, General Ulysses Grant of the Union Army, General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army, and a whole host of then-notable and some completely unknown and fictitious characters.

The stories, chosen and interwoven by playwright Paula Vogel, are meant to acknowledge many issues present at that time of divided national interests. Slaves are being freed, North and South are still at war and full of enmity for one another, and Lincoln is under increasing threat of attack. There is much darkness, and the struggle for peace and for human connection is a difficult one to win.

An ensemble cast of 13 plays multiple roles. There are, I hear, 60 scenes, which is a lot of scenes. This is apparently less than the published version, and was cut by permission. Still, the tumultuous tales don’t blend easily and following their paths takes a lot of attention from audience members.
 
The extensive list of songs used include many familiar Christmastime songs and some other familiar tunes. Sometimes, they are reflections of the script element of the moment: a mother tells her daughter to follow the North Star and they’ll be able to find freedom, and the song Follow the Drinking Gourd is sung. Sometimes, the reference is peace or Christmas Eve and then a Christmas song is sung.

Stories included are: Mrs. Lincoln (Marianne Savell) wants a Christmas tree for the Blue Room and accidentally takes the one slated for the famous dressmaker who bought her own freedom, Elizabeth Keckley (Dedra D. Woods). Mrs. Keckley wants the tree for a supportive community that helps the needy, and is plagued by memories of her slain son. A slave and her daughter walk for days to find freedom, but are separated near the Capital on a freezing night. A young Southerner is eager to take his horse and join the fight for the South. A free-black ironworker (Tyler Trerise) yearns for his wife’s whereabouts after she was captured from their front porch and maybe taken to slavery. John Wilkes Booth (Chris Shea) plots with others to kidnap President Lincoln. And there are more.

The sheer volume of characters overwhelms the performance. Everyone at Taproot does their best to pull this off, including the two musicians (Elizabeth Rainey and Thao B. Huynh), directors Karen Lund and Faith Bennett Russell, costumer Jocelyne Fowler, technicians and all 13 of the lovely cast. (I should make special mention of young Elena Clipper who plays the daughter with dignity and aplomb.)

There are many moments that move and tug at your heart. Certainly, the danger present at that time is made real. However, the entire effort is disjointed and stilted, and that is the fault of a playwright who has bitten off far more than can be realistically “chewed.” It may have been an experiment on her part, but this tapestry has too many hanging threads.

Still, it’s something “different” than your normal holiday fare and the cast makes it worth your while.

For more information, go to www.taproottheatre.org or call 206-781-9707. 

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