Tuesday, December 04, 2012

THEATER: I'll Be Home For "A Civil War Christmas"

Photo/Carol Rosegg
It's Christmas Eve, 1864, and Paula Vogel is shining a spotlight on three wise American men as they momentarily step back from the brink of their war and enjoy a moment of peace. Hark, a rueful Robert E. Lee (Sean Allan Krill) refuses, out of solidarity with his impoverished troops, to drink hot coffee or rest his bones! O, how General Ulysses S. Grant (Chris Henry) is prodded toward victory by his sobering aide-de-camp Ely Parker (Jonathan-David). Hear, of course, President Abraham Lincoln (Bob Stillman), in all his stove-piped glory, as he allows an enigmatic dream to worry its way under his skin. Now, forget about all these characters -- we're about to be introduced to at least a dozen more, and you'll not hear from Lee or Grant again -- because in this patchwork play, Vogel could care less about these potent historical figures. She's after that holy atmosphere found in those tales of Christmas miracles, and while she achieves it, that's no great achievement in itself: the thematic structure of "clever" conveniences, collusions, and collisions is made no less hokey by the educational setting of A Civil War Christmas.

With the utmost of respect for Vogel and her director, Tina Landau, A Civil War Christmas is a beautiful and occasionally touching tale, but it is also -- and more often -- hectic and manipulative nonsense, propelled by insistent and omniscient narrators and livened by carols. Alice Ripley, who does a fine, dare I say brave, job as Mary Todd Lincoln is at times made out to be a bipolar buffoon on the search for the perfect Christmas tree (when comic relief is called for), while at others provides a calm and somber entrance into a military hospital, where the dying soldiers call out for a mysterious figure who is half Walt Whitman, half Santa Claus. The play flits from interesting fact to interesting fact, all the while largely forgetting to itself be interesting, and the tonal imbalance and large gabs between individuals prevents any chords from standing out, let alone developing into anything close to a harmonious whole. In fact, when the entire cast sings a carol, it's difficult to determine where to even look: each character's doing their own abstract thing. There's a brief romance between a mule and a horse on opposite ends of the Potomac; there are moral reminders that some Union soldiers were Jewish, and had their own prayers and songs; there's a freeman out for vengeance on the confederates who kidnapped his wife: are we watching War Horse, Lincoln, or Django Unchained?

The few tatters of outstanding material in the play all use echoes to sustain themselves: with each stitch that Elizabeth Keckley (Karen Kandel) makes in a Christmas shawl, she is haunted by flashbacks of her dead son and her escape from slavery; Decatur Bronson (K. Todd Freeman) keeps using work to distract him from his phantasmal wife, which gives poignancy to the moment when we learn what her cryptic message means. Much like Keckley's stitching, then, these are scenes that build upon themselves and use repetition to stitch themselves more firmly into our minds. It's far harder to find significance in the misadventures of young Raz (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), who runs away from her snoring father to enlist in the Confederate army, or to feel much for the plight of the young, hypothermically hallucinating Jessa (Sumaya Bouhbal), who spends much of her time on stage smiling at would-be slave-catchers. They serve as objects for other characters to react to, or as set-up for some of the more intricate coincidences that result in Lincoln narrowly avoiding an ambush by John Wilkes Booth (Krill, who is outstandingly bombastic in this role) and in Jessa's reunion with her frantic mother, Hannah (Amber Iman, a terrific singer).

To one side of the New York Theater Workshop space, a multitude of hats and jackets dangle from hooks. To the other, there are black and white photographs of these characters, hung from long white strings. But it takes more than quick costume changes and basic dramaturgy to mount a play, especially when ambiguous and unclear choices keep emphasizing the fact that a play is being mounted before your eyes. Why bother with authentic costumes (and some distracting modern ones) when the stage is, for the most part, bare? Why keep adding characters to an already addled script -- like a pacifist Quaker -- if they're only there to provide someone else with a chance for exposition? All the props and photos in the world won't help with such choices, and despite some genuinely touching moments, A Civil War Christmas feels like a research paper that's still scrawled out on index cards.

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