Hilarity with humility - new play Butler takes a fresh look at a sensitive subject of the Civil War
Review by Shoshana Roberts
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 28 August 2016
59E59 Theaters, NYC
BOTTOM LINE: A historical comedy in which three slaves during the civil war demand sanctuary at Major General Butler's Union fort.
What is your name? Do you go by a title like “Doctor” or “Sir”? Maybe you have people call you by your full name. How about a nickname? What we call people can indicate our relationship or rank in comparison to them. What we allow ourselves to be called, especially by those who are our subordinates, is both specific and personal. I remember being shocked in school when teachers allowed students to address them by their first name. In the army this is also a sensitive matter and must be tread upon lightly. Those too forward with those who outrank them can find themselves in a world of trouble.
As the plot progresses in Butler, the Major General Benjamin Butler (the delightful Ames Adamson) is alternately addressed as Sir, Ben, Benjamin Franklin Busker, and General Ben; such status-based changes alter the expectation of interactions between a civilian, commanding officer, one who is educating, someone who gets too big for their britches, and a slave (who is seen as property.) Butler's amazingly talented writer Richard Strand makes great use of such spectacular attention to the detailed specificity of language. Every word is included for a reason. There is always a need for each character to open his mouth, and the interplay is so fun to watch.
Butler could not come at a better time, as the United States is in a precarious position on the cusp of change. Whether this change is for the better or something that will alter history in one of the worst possible ways is yet to be determined. Butler takes place during Abraham Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War, another volatile time in history, when Virginia has just seceded from the Union. Major General Benjamin Butler is in command at a Union fort in Virginia. Lieutenant Kelly (Benjamin Sterling) brings news to Butler of three black men seeking sanctuary at the fort. The only problem (especially for Butler, who was a lawyer before the war) is that according to the law these men are slaves: as legal "property," they must be returned to their “rightful owner.” Shepard Mallory (John G. Williams) is an educated man, having been illegally educated while a slave for Colonel Mallory. While the “humble and arrogant” Shepard Mallory is begging General Butler to not return him to his owner, Major Cary (David Sitler) is on his way to collect the Colonel's slaves. What occurs could be considered, in a very technical term of course, a huge hullabaloo.
Adamson, Sterling, Williams, and Sitler all are masters at their craft, actors who illustrate such control over language, movement, breathing, and facial expressions. Clearly well-taught in their discipline, each possesses an amazing gift, for it is the best kind of actors who make acting look easy and fun. Each component of the production works seamlessly together, from the clever script and these wonderful actors to director Joseph Discher, who displays their gifts in the best possible light.
Not only does Butler entertain, but it illustrates humanity and how, while we are all human beings, we can be quite different from each other. That such politically relevant material (also resonant with the #blacklivesmatter movement) is done with humor is even more impressive. Not to mention that Butler is a based on real events: Benjamin Franklin Butler was a real man who used his legal knowledge to help slaves. In Butler, humor and education combine to form an entertaining historical play that doubles as social commentary on the current state of the union.
(Butler plays at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, through August 28, 2016. The running time is two hours with an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 7; Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $70 and are available at 59e59.org or by calling 212-279-4200.)
Butler is by Richard Strand. Directed by Joseph Discher. Set Design is by Jessica L. Parks. Lighting Design is by Jill Nagle. Costume Design is by Patricia E. Doherty. Sound Design is by Steve Beckel. Stage Manager is Rose Riccardi.
The cast is Ames Adamson, Benjamin Sterling, John G. Williams, and David Sitler.
59E59 Theaters: 59 East 59th Street NYC
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