Fresh Eyes on CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, 5th Installment

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Fresh Eyes on A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS: Brennan Randel, Matthew Corwin, and Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

Our fine Fresh Eyes fellows, Matthew Corwin and Brennan Randel, joined us again for the second preview performance of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS. From a working point of view, previews are rehearsals in which the final essential element of the show (the audience!) is added. Timing, balance, clarity of story are all fine-tuned with the aid of two hundred new people reacting and responding to the play. Here are Brennan's and Matthew's observations:

 

BRENNAN RANDEL 

Last night we got to see the preview production of A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, and what a rich experience it was! This play is smart; it intertwines three separate story lines into one textured and palpable world.

  • The South – realizing the war was lost and that their way of life was changing.
  • The North – cautiously guarding the borders of the Potomac River in the hopes of a soon coming peace.
  • The Runaways – looking for a home and desperately believing in both The President and America to provide, even in the tattered and war torn surroundings.

The use of the set itself helps to establish the tension of the time by using constant turbulent motion from the everyone in the cast. Nothing stops! And it’s to an amazing effect! The background droning of the war drum on the South’s side like the bustle of a market on the North help to establish place. The lighting changes and queues for each side of the river are also dramatic and affect the mood of any scene.

The actors are beautifully in tune with their characters and they also have a keen ability to switch between voices. In the beginning of the play General Lee has an awesome echoing power in the realization of the South’s defeat. The resonant baritone at the beginning of ‘Peace on Earth’ echoes through the hall and through my bones. As I crowd watched, this was the beginning of no dry eyes in the house! Contrasting the large bass voice and blustery characters of General Lee (and other characters… I don’t wish to give away spoilers), I was equally moved by the desperate songful quietness of Jessa. This character’s smallness of voice comes from the uncertainty and lostness she feels as she and her mother search for a new beginning. Mary Todd Lincoln and Mrs. Keckley are both beautifully strong, flawed, and soulful individuals. The two actors portraying these roles trade strengths for strength as they hold each other up through losses of family members and other trials of the times. In the market as the child’s costume is cradled away I saw that this scene had been beautifully choreographed to cement its impact across the whole stage; this was particularly powerful and speaks to the level of attention put in by all members of the cast and crew. The characters of Willy Mack and Decatur Bronson share a determination in their individual searches of their lives, these are two different mindsets of South and North that are further colored by the characters of Hannah and Raz who represent the two different viewpoints that were present in the South itself. Again, all characters fit their roles so well that I could see the battlefields under their feet, but I think my favorite character must be the somewhat incidental character of Chester – “the noble soldier who could not shoot.” Chester’s internal conflict of not wishing to kill a person versus wanting to help a country he’s proud of echoes the division of the times even louder and is specifically relatable especially in today’s climates.

The music! This beautiful part of the production certainly tells its own story. The music and soundscape of the play are well stitched together and add incredible textures to the production. The songs almost more so than the dialogue set the mood for each scene and tie the feelings of the actors to something that the audience can further experience. Small details like the sound of rain on the tin roof of the blacksmith’s shed, or the hits of a blacksmith’s hammer further engage the audience in the believability of each scene. The full song productions though tugged at my heartstrings and deepened the emotional connection to the whole production.

This is all together an emotional and timely appropriate production. I heard many huffs and moans in the audience as certain statements about division and government were made. Their trueness nonetheless rings across generations and is rarely found to be so accurate. We too are in turbulent times and must remember that by coming together we can survive. I am truly looking forward to seeing this show again in two weeks for our season ticket production. I believe with time the show will “get tighter” and I hope that the laugh points hit with more audiences as some of the folks tonight seemed quite dry. Cheers and thanks to the cast and crew for an incredible show!


MATTHEW CORWIN
 

Ican now state with absolute certainty that I will shed a tear each and every time I hear the line, “I want the glove from the hand that signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”  I am far less certain whether, in this play, the music provides a vehicle for the story, or vice-versa.  Regardless, both components work in perfect harmony to transport the audience into a world which reflects a specific time, yet is also timeless.  From the cacophony of everyone entering the stage as the lights come up, an ever-whirling series of vignettes carry us through a tale which simultaneously reminds us that, deep down, we’re all the same, just trying to make it through our time on Earth as best we know how, but inside of that, everyone’s experiences are unique and color how we each perceive the same series of events.  I am actually glad to have missed all of the full run-throughs up to this point, so that tonight was my first linear encounter with the entire story since the first read.  It was fascinating to watch all the pieces—each of which has been meticulously crafted, examined, and refined—come together to create a cohesive whole.

Seeing all the scenes in order enabled me to pick out some contrasts and running themes which had thus far been obscured by the looping involved in rehearsals.  The first such distinction takes place in two of the opening scenes, where we see the Confederate soldiers singing a forlorn rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” followed by a raucous refrain of the same song a few moments later, sung by Grant’s army.  In contrast to this dichotomy, there are specific musical themes which help the audience establish continuity between appearances of the same characters:  “Take No Prisoners” for Bronson and his men, Raz and Silver’s equine theme, and Booth’s “Maryland, My Maryland” among them.  Further assisting the audience in keeping track of changes in time and place were marked shifts in lighting accompanied by cues from the piano harp to signify a cutaway into a flashback or dream sequence.  For the most part, the set and prop manipulations have become so natural that they are hardly noticeable, even to someone with the inside knowledge to look for them.  During “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” I was struck by the contrast on stage of the two mothers—one searching desperately for her child lost in the city, the other trying just as desperately to let go of her son lost to the war.  At the Armory Hospital, as Mary Todd Lincoln tends to Moses Levy, the juxtaposition of “Silent Night” with the Kaddish is downright haunting; I feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck even as I write this.  In the same vein, when Jessa hides in the alley we hear “Ding Dong Merrily on High” transpose to a minor key, foreshadowing the grave mistake she is making.  Toward the end of the play, as we build to the catharsis, we are bookended with a refrain by Raz of General Lee’s words, “I would gladly shed every drop of my blood if it would save my country.”  Then bringing the story to a close, we return to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” with which we first met the Three Wise Men of the Potomac.

Looking back over what I’ve written, I notice that nearly every moment I took away at the end of the evening was intimately tied to a musical number, and so I return to the question with which I opened.  Is this a story written for the purpose of tying these traditional songs together, or does the story use the songs to achieve its own end?  I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you, dear reader, so I urge you to consider it from the perspective of your own experience.  Sharing with you my wishes for peace on Earth, good will to all.