Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ample: Star Quality

A tear: I cried on November 4th 2008. So is my tear a good predictor of the power of the play A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration? Probably not, but my tear’s affirmation is.

On November 28, 2008 I was part of the alchemy of the first full run of this plays' world premier at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. Under the direction of Tina Landau, the creative team engaged me, audience member, in the historically rooted fictionalized events of December 24, 1864.

With austerely orchestrated music, subtly transformational movement navigating precarious staging, a chandelier, an anvil, the communality of coffee and symbolism of gloves; a diverse and talented cast of fourteen embodied ninety characters, both human and animal. Yes, there was a talking horse, potent musical parody, powerfully executed solos, inter-faith choruses, and elevated historical facts & figures from our Civil War History, three wise men, a lost child, a scarcity of trees and a disrobing and much, much more. Three stories were concurrently told, weaved together with seasonal and period music.

The musical celebration is the engine of this storytelling. This work is so abundant with detail, symbolism and intent that this could be under-estimated. An older white male audience member behind me repeatedly described the play as like a high school musical review. However, an older white Canadian male in the audience wondered if this dramatization of America through song could safely be shared south of the Mason-Dixon Line. And the everyman with me said that traditional songs were, for him, infused with new meaning and the parody was on par with the power of late night TV. For me, Oh Christmas Tree will be forever equated with spreading hope and gladness far and wide.

In this play, more suitable for all ages than is her reputation, Pulitzer Prize winning Paula Vogel does not leave risk taking behind. America’s ghosts and the take no prisoners’ tension illuminates some fundamental struggles at the core of our country’s formation as united states. Within the decade of its gestation, this playwright cultivates information about geography, history, music, ideologies, and most critically the under-told stories of the other. The result is an abundance of food for thought for theater-goers potentially for years to come.

  • For those students of theater, exposition of the three stories joined together by song has ample elements to explore. And if non-period references stay in the play after preview week, the pros and cons of the directorial decision on the potential for the story as a classic can certainly be debated.
  • For the fact finders, the weaving of fact and fiction provides ample room for clarification. When did Walt Whitman leave the battlefields? Do mules and horses have pheromones in common? Did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow disapprove of his son Charles fighting in the American Civil War? Were any African–American freeborn at the time of the War? Did Mary Todd Lincoln buy American? This is a random list of question, however, a formidable course-worthy list of questions could be explored.
  • For students of American History, an exploration of the story interconnections could evoke conversation about the building of a national identity, the rise of social movements, and the challenges of social justice.
  • For star gazers, the implicit setting of a star a top of the Christmas Tree with gladness of heart can be the communal coffee of any gathering of family or friends during the Holidays.

If I were asked at intermission, Do you expect to have an emotional response to this play? I would have confidently said NO. However, I was not alone in ultimately feeling a deep fundamental emotional response to both the pain and the hope. Mine was not the only tear. And even if I personally found the unveiled Christmas Tree was over the top and too current in design - I was captured by the implied topping of the tree with a star - I was held prisoner.

I am confident that this story will become annual holiday fare. If your personal economics allow, I strongly urge any student of American Theater to see this production this season.

If I could give a gift to our new President and his family, it would be tickets to this play.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i read your response to the play and remember enjoying it. it had clarity and honesty. it made me feel like you had the worthwhile experience that the theater should always strive toward. it made me happy to know that. (djh)