Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, 1st Installment
Rehearsals began this week for Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. In the play, a group of people tell the story of Christmas Eve, 1864, a frigid night on the Potomac River when the Civil War was raging. The story is told, in part, through songs of the era and Christmas Carols. Artists Rep commissioned seven local musicians to create new arrangements of most of the songs in the show, which brings an absolutely contemporary, very Portland sensibility to the production.
Today, our new cadre of Fresh Eyes (Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, Matthew Corwin and Brennan Randel) attended the first read through of the script and, along with an audience of Guild members and Artists Rep staff, heard heard design presentations and the new musical arrangements in the context of the story.
As always, we ask them to share their thoughts about what they see and hear, and invite them to respond in whatever form they like. Here are their observations:
Let me start by saying: this is not my first first-read. As a member of the ART Guild, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend these rehearsals for most of last season’s productions. My preferred approach is to enter the read with as little foreknowledge about the work as possible and observe the framework that is constructed today, and thus far my next encounter has been with the full main stage production. For this show, I am eager for the opportunity to witness the evolution that takes place between those two bookends.
One of my favorite aspects of the first read is the designers’ presentations. I am always captivated to hear what each of these artists is bringing to the party, what philosophies are informing their decisions, and what challenges along the way will inspire them to greatness. My biggest takeaways from the design team for A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS center around the parallels between the period and contemporary society. Paul Angelo’s comment that this play is, “not a documentary, not a history, but the telling of a story that belongs to all of us, and an examination of how that history affects us today,” echoed throughout the rest of the designers’ visions. Not least of those visions—this being a musical—is Andrew Bray’s as Music Director; the decision to commission local artists to arrange modern takes on these traditional melodies is one that resonates soundly with me. I was also struck by the intent to form the “orchestra” on stage by way of instruments found in the rubble, further reinforcing the score’s role as effectively another member of the cast. It will be interesting to see how incorporating use of the “piano harp”—whose position is naturally fixed—will contribute to or confound the blocking as rehearsals move away from the table. When Tim Stapleton mentioned the challenges surrounding the use of multiple locations, I was not yet prepared for just how many settings are used in the course of this narrative, nor how rapidly they bounce from one to another! In terms of overall atmosphere, I took note of a recurring theme of “reconstruction out of deconstruction,” which will be reinforced by Peter West’s lighting design. Peter talked about approaching this show with a cinematic eye, noting the contrasting palettes of the Union soldiers’ cold, industrial-produced blue uniforms versus the Confederates’ homespun butternut. I am keenly interested to see how Bobby Brewer-Wallin manages the costuming for this production, since each actor portrays so many characters. He talked of adding and shedding layers to indicate these transitions, working with articles of contemporary clothing which echo the period styles. Kristen Mun is going to have her work cut out for her as Movement Choreographer, in calculating where these pieces are going to need to be cast off in order to be picked up again when we rejoin each character. Mary McDonald-Lewis is bringing her skill, knowledge, and experience to examine the question, “How do we meld the sounds of the past with the modern?” She caught my attention when she said to take the judgment out of the dialect—do white Southerners sound racist? “There are no base accents—only base thoughts.”
During the table read, I took very few notes as I took a total immersion approach. I intend to familiarize myself with the script between now and the next rehearsal I attend, but I very much enjoy getting to experience my first encounter with the material holistically. Going into table work, I look forward to seeing how Paul plays with rhythm, timbre, and texture within the delivery of lines, set upon the backdrop of Andrew and his collaborators’ musical compositions. In the table format, though, I had difficulty following which actor was in what character and when; costume and lighting cues are going to be crucial to maintaining continuity in the audience’s mind. This is going to be a remarkably interesting experience, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to share in the journey.
I only had time to read the opening scenes of Paula Vogel’s play before the first rehearsal today, and they left me a bit bewildered. Each brief scene introduces a new setting, a new set of characters, a new social group. It was like encountering the start of a RAGTIME-style social panorama set in the Civil War, or a multi-plot Dickens novel set stateside. But without the space of a novel, I wondered, how would Vogel be able to develop all these strands? I’d seen her use choruses and double-casting in HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE, but there’s an “I” anchoring that play, a central hero whose journey to maturity we follow—as there is in the play whose choral style Vogel mentions as a model, the RSC’s NICHOLAS NICKELBY. What would guide us through this fractured space?
I arrived a few minutes late to the rehearsal, which didn’t help my sense of disorientation. I wasn’t even quite sure who the many people in the room were, or what unifying vision I had missed being explained. But when the lighting designer, I think, said that this is a play that “yearns for union,” I perked up. That’s what I yearned for, too! And then the voice and text coach said that her process would rely on “reconstruction and deconstruction,” and I was intrigued. Those are literary-critical terms that I use in my day job as an English professor, but they’re also, of course, heavy-hitting terms in 19th-century American history. How would the play’s longing for union map onto America’s quest to heal civil strife? How would reconstruction work as a dramatic principle, as well as a political project? And if, as I gathered from the design presentations, this show was being framed as Portland actors in the present telling Vogel’s story on Christmas Eve, 1864, what kind of unity could A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS bring to a city that seems newly conscious of its own histories of class division and racial exclusion?
The opening scenes of the read-through repeated my confusion from the script: lots of characters, lots of story-lines that seemed abbreviated. But then the songs began. Rapture! Even though the music director had cautioned us not to expect performance-level work from the beginning of the process, I was still transported. When the cast blossomed into the lush harmonies of a song of Jubilee, celebrating the news that General Sherman had taken Savannah, it seemed like union had been achieved—at least on the level of sonority. I almost didn’t want to go back to the muddle of the plot. Give me another song! And the show did: a haunting choral version of “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” a surprising bluegrass setting of “Lo How a Rose," a resonant gospel take on “What Child Is This?” I stopped trying to keep track of who was fetching a Christmas tree for Mary Todd Lincoln or who was joining John Wilkes Booth’s plot to kidnap the president and just waited for the next tune. Maybe this wouldn’t be a gripping narrative, but it could at least be a fresh Christmas revels, or maybe some kind of Potomac Home Companion, a showcase for fresh takes on the American songbook.
I was surprised, though, by the end of the read-through to find that I was moved by the resolution of the characters’ journeys, which finally started to intersect. Would the freed black sergeant really carry through his vow to “Take no prisoners” when confronted with a child Rebel soldier? Would Hannah be able to find her lost daughter in the shadow of the White House? Would Mary Todd get that Christmas tree into the parlor before her husband returned with her gloves from Paris? Well, I didn’t really care about the latter, but the first two strands seemed like genuine Christmas miracles: a vengeance plot turned to brotherhood, a slave-catching plot turned to a mother and child reunion. There wasn’t the glorious choral harmony of my dreams to wrap it all in a bow, but there was a wish for peace, which was gift enough: a Civil War drama that turned fighting to singing.
But why, I wondered, would Paula Vogel, an openly Jewish, lesbian playwright, want to write a Christmas pageant? Where would she find her heart in the piece? At first I thought it might be in the characters whose identity fit the same categories: the poet Walt Whitman, who hovers around the play, or the dying Moses Levy, who searches for Whitman in the hospital. Or perhaps it was in the resonance the play’s setting in Vogel’s home state, Maryland, and the chilling recognition that the state anthem she grew up singing includes the start of Booth’s cry, “Sic Semper.” But then I thought that perhaps she identified less with any particular character or refrain than in the capaciousness of the vision of America that the play provides, a sense of a country, not just a Whitmanian self, that’s large, that contains multitudes. Certainly, at a moment when theaters across the country are shrinking their casts, and when female playwrights and artists of color are chronically underrepresented, it felt like another Christmas miracle to see the twenty-odd bodies ranging across age and color and size all seated in the rehearsal semi-circle. In a way, the play seemed like a feminist anticipation of Hamilton: America then told by America now, with remixed songs and an imaginatively cast array of historical figures—but unlike Hamilton, it looks beyond founding fathers to include a tailor, a seamstress, a blacksmith, African-Americans afraid of reenslavement, a Rebel soldier longing for his mother.
Vogel also queers the customary family ending to the Christmas story. Instead of parents with their holy baby in a manger, or the Cratchit family restored around the hearth, she gives us unconventional social units reaching harmony at the play's end: a mother and her daughter but no father, reunited at a home for destitute women by a woman who had lost her own child; three single men--a former slave who's lost his wife, a Rebel without parents, a Quaker peacemaker--sharing a chicken dinner; and the lone straight couple, the Lincolns, with no children in sight. Rather than affirm the nuclear family, it looks like Vogel is exploring the range of living arrangements that can sustain the holiday spirit--merry instead of marry, perhaps.
How far, I wondered finally, would this sense of inclusion extend? Vogel’s script calls this “a play for community” and encourages the casting of non-professionals from the area. That didn’t seem to be Artists Rep’s choice—though it was fun to see regulars adding twists to previous roles: Susannah Mars as Mary Lincoln finding new layers of humor and pathos in another manic mother after NEXT TO NORMAL; Ayanna Berkshire, coming off INTIMATE APPAREL to play another soulful seamstress; John San Nicolas, fresh from his chimp turn in TREVOR, neighing as Silver the horse. Once Luan kindly invited me to move closer to the front, I could see the labels on the company name placards: Guest Artist, Resident Artist. The role of the guest becomes fatally important in the play: Bronson decides that if the Rebel boy is his guest, not his prisoner, then he doesn’t have to shoot him and can invite him to sup instead. Ladling spoonfuls of steel-cut oats into a paper bowl during the rehearsal break, I felt like I was a guest, too, in a cushy version of a Union mess hall line (though no soldier got to enjoy tasty caramelized apples and whipping cream!). Vogel’s script, though, also suggests that the play would be stronger if the audience could sing along. We weren’t invited to sing at the first rehearsal, but I hope that subsequent audiences are. It would be lovely if the capacious vision of community that the play creates could extend offstage as well.BRENNAN RANDEL
Damaso - ART's evolving relationship with Holiday materials... I really like this approach as I'm not particularly religious, but I do enjoy the camaraderie and food that comes with the holiday season. I also like and hone in on the description that this is a play set in 1864 and 2016, and his generalities lend themselves to painting broad base strokes on the open canvas with which I approach first reads.
Paul Angelo - I really love this mans vision, and I don't think we've ever disliked something that he has directed. His somewhat kooky nurturing approach is going to lead to a very comfortable cast. These are all amazing folks who will always put their best forward, but talking and coaching rather than Gordon Ramsey style yelling is going to carry such a huge cast to some really new creative destinations. I'm most interested to see how a director works with the cast and crew later in the process when table work becomes something more physical.
Andrew Bray - Are you kidding me! I feel like a stalker...lol. Andrew has done sound design for the last two or three productions that we've seen. Having him for CWC is going to be a special kind of amazing! Andrew's mastery of soundscapes and design are unmatched, and he is to sound design what Karl Jenkins is to modern symphony. His approach to rearranging and rewriting so much of the music for this production is going to make for a stellar score, and having him with his music at first read was a new and lovely experience.
Tim Stapleton - I believe this is my first experience with Tim as a set designer. Though his name sounds awfully familiar I can't honestly remember if I've seen one of his sets or not.. . I am excited to see this set design! The challenges presented (everyone all the time), and his description of the spiral effect that he wishes to achieve is worthy of awe! I also really like that his design IS very much 'Americana' without the obvious old flags or stars and bars being painted into the set. Tim's sense of place is also very important and his ability to transport us to 1864/2016 is going to be magical. "War torn but not dark... with hope that comes from the ending of such horribleness." THAT sense of place and hope sends shivers down my spine!
Peter West - Now this presentation was really interesting! Not a lot of substance at the moment, but his concepts and stream of ideas have my mind blown! I love the ideas of using lighting to enhance the new music for this production, and his ideas of queuing are going to create a palpable feel for this world. His knowledge and description of the differences between North and South speaks to his level of research and passion for his work! This presentation made me glad that I'll get to see this particular production a few times so that I can watch for different elements and for different reactions from audiences.
(mental note to self: get tix for a few slots... you need to be able to watch the show a few time, and you also need to watch the audience once or twice)
Mary Mac - I love this woman's ears! She hears the music of humanity and of time! I would love to shadow, specifically her, through the process of character building and of associated cultural soundscaping and design. She hears language and voice much like an audiophile hears music, though her talent is being able to return and shape that voice for an actor so that they can become their best character. Her concept of 'taking the judgment out of the sound' has me not only rethinking this play, but my own approach to life and conversation. Each time I speak with Mary Mac I am lucky to gain a new insight on how to listen and communicate so that I can be my best self. She is a gift!
THE TABLE READ
I'm interested to watch the progression of the cast as they grow and get comfortable together. You can certainly tell the seasoned actors and the more green ones at the moment. The director is going to have an interesting challenge in helping the younger actors build on and relate to their characters (these people won't be real until the actors can internalize the person they're portraying).
Hearing the music, even in rough form, has already helped to build a world picture in my head. The musicality of this cast is incredible, and when it does come together the music for this production is going to raise the roof! Cheers to ART for taking on the challenge of a musical. Is STAGED! their own production company? I've seen them collaborating all over town, but haven't ever heard of an actual production they do for themselves...
Costuming has got it rough! How in the world do they pull of the descriptions that are painted with physical costumes and props... this is gonna be a trip!
The storyline was a bit hard to follow at a table read, but I'm sure it will clarify with both direction and a set. ART collaborating with STAGED! for a musical though... this has my mind blown and is more exciting than I can describe (please bear in mind... I AM a show tunes kind of person).
A contemporary feel to a Civil War play? Wow there are a few challenges there; though hearing it described as a "Post Election Play" I can certainly understand that description and am personally thanking heavens that I've voted and can sit in for the telling of a great story. Everything in first read was beautifully raw yet I still got the feeling like it was a really good audiobook!
Thank you all for inviting me to Fresh Eyes. This is going to be so incredibly educational for me, so please forgive if I ask too many questions the next time we get to see each other.