Review: North Coast Representative’s “Ben Butler” Finds Unexpected Humor in Civil War History

On the page, Richard Strand’s play “Ben Butler” has a daring plot. It’s a sometimes wacky comedy about a runaway slave negotiating for his life with a Union army general on the cusp of civil war. On stage, this risky play that debuted at the North Coast Repertory Theater on Saturday really works.

Thanks to the astute writing, thoughtful direction of David Ellenstein, and the engaged performances of its four actors, “Ben Butler” is not only funny, it’s also an entertaining character study of two men whose lives intersect. are crossed in real life – Union Major General Benjamin Butler and escaped from the campaign hand of Virginia Shepard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Va., in May 1861. From historical recordsButler would later turn down a Confederate major who arrived to retrieve Mallory and two other slaves, declaring the men “contraband of war,” a strategic move that would ultimately lead to the emancipation proclamation 19 months later.

A lot is known about the Fat Butler, an irascible, brilliant, cruel and sometimes corrupt lawyer and politician. But Mallory is gone in history. So while Strand’s play is fact-based, the way these two men interacted is a product of the playwright’s imagination.

In the first scene of the play, the back and forth of the two characters seem a bit awkward and unrealistic. There’s also a very thin line to navigate between comedy and dark drama, like when Mallory lifts his tattered shirt to reveal the glaring scars on his back. But by the second of the play’s four scenes, the fast-moving play finds its mark and flies – thanks to the script’s witty repartee, revelations, and entertaining exposure of the characters.

In the title role is North Coast veteran Richard Baird, who is almost unrecognizable in a generously padded uniform suit and with his usually thick brown hair shaved into a bald head. He’s mean, cunning, anxious, and arrogant like the exasperated butler, who is foiled over and over again by equally clever and temperamental Mallory, who is played in a beautiful, changeable performance by Brandon J. Pierce.

Pierce’s intensity, fearlessness, and dignity in the role help overcome some of his character’s intentionally anachronistic lines, which ring very 21st century in insight and thoughtfulness. The humor of the play comes from recognizing how imperfect and alike these two men are and how they push each other to make a difference.

Bruce Turk is excellent as the pompous and condescending Confederate Major Carey, who is hilariously foiled in his mission to get the slaves back. And an endearing Brian Mackey rounds out the cast as Butler’s not-too-bright adjutant, Union Lt. Kelly, who serves as a comedic foil for Butler’s bullying behavior.

Physical production seems smart. Marty Burnett designed the entire General’s office, Renetta Lloyd designed the period costumes for the richly decorated uniforms, Matthew Novotny designed the lighting, and Aaron Rumley designed the sound. “Ben Butler” is only 90 minutes long, including a 15-minute intermission. It’s short, smart, well done, and surprisingly true, at least most of it.

‘Ben Butler’

When: 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday; 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Until November 14.

Or: North Coast Repertory Theater, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Tickets: $ 54- $ 60

Telephone: (858) 481-1055

In line: northcoastrep.org

COVID protocol: Proof of complete vaccination or negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of the required run date. Masks are mandatory inside.


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