BWW Reviews: A Stove Top Hat Holiday: A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS
According to the program, it all began in 1997 when playwright Paula Vogel asked Molly Smith of Washington, DC's Arena Stage, "Why are we doing A Christmas Carol about Victorian London poverty? Where is theAmerican Carol?"
Eleven years later, Vogel's "A Civil War Christmas: An American Musical Celebration," debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT, and now, in 2013, comes to Baltimore under the direction of Rebecca Taichman with performances through Dec. 22nd at Center Stage.
Vogel's work introduces us to more than 20 characters, some historical like Abraham Lincoln (Jeffry Denman) and John Wilkes Booth (Matthew Greer), while others are fictional, like the African-American Union soldier, blacksmith and Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Decatur Bronson (Oberon K.A. Adjepong). Vogel does a masterful job of weaving a variety of storylines together, some comic-like Mary Todd Lincoln (Kati Brazda) and seamstress Mrs. Keckley (Tracey Conyer Lee)'s attempts to secure the same Christmas tree as a holiday surprise-some nearly tragic, as Jessa (Mackenzie Kristine Jarrett) a child lost in Washington, DC nearly freezes to death but whose presence inadvertently saves Lincoln from would-be kidnappers.
But what binds this work together is, ultimately, music and song. Some of the pieces are traditional carols, like God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Silent Night, O Christmas Tree, but, like the storylines, are carefully woven together with less recognizable pieces, like All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight, I'm A-Gone Away to Shiloh, The Holly and the Ivy, Balm in Gilead, and Follow the Drinking Gourd-- a song which found its routes in the efforts of Underground Railroad operatives to aid fleeing slaves with encoded directions making their way from Alabama to the Ohio River (the "drinking gourd" being an allusion to the Big Dipper astrological formation).
"A Civil War Christmas" takes place on Christmas Eve, 1864, but there is much which reverberates today...Mary Todd Lincoln, hoop-skirt not withstanding, could be a woman of the modern day...a mother suffering the loss of a child, coping with manic depression and a Yuletide season when one is "supposed" to show "the gladness of one's heart." Mrs. Keckley, her fingers at her work, her mind on memories of her dead son killed in battle, could be any woman today in America attempting to struggle on despite the pain of a son or daughter killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
And perhaps that's the aspect of this work that is most "American"-the American ability to endure, whether it be the cold of what was described as "one of Washington's coldest winters on record in 1864," a war intent on claiming more lives, like Moses Levy (A.J. Shively) a dying Jewish soldier who experiences Christmas in the comfort of a woman's singing, a poet's gift, and just plain human kindness, or rage that comes from losing what one loves the most and forces a man, Sgt. Bronson, to choose between taking or sparing a life-the characters in "A Civil War Christmas" endure, survive, and rise above.
Kudos to director Rebecca Taichman and her artistic team for letting the characters' stories and song take center stage; instead of opting for lavish costumes and props, Taichman takes a very minimalist approach. The stage appears set for a rehearsal rather than a play; there is no backdrop beyond the brick wall of the theater. Costumes are subdued; the men wear black long coats, a sword transforms Jeffry Denman into General Robert E. Lee, and when replaced with a stove top hat, he is, of course, Lincoln. And I could not help but flash on "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" as A.J. Shively's portrayal of Raz (Andrea Goss)'s "horse" was achieved with what appeared to be two halves of a coconut being knocked together. Not exactly home-grown American, but taking the best offerings of other cultures and making them our own, is this not an American trait? It's a point not missed by Vogel, whose Mary Todd Lincoln notes that the Christmas tree-a novel concept to Americans in 1864--finds its metaphorical roots in "Bavaria," not in the states!