Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler” now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach through November 14th is referred to as an historical play. It’s a comedy, deals with slavery and Civil War conundrums. In fact, the blunders and convoluted legal gyrations (he was a lawyer in civilian life) surrounding Major General Benjamin Butler’s very short stint in the Union Army are actually one for the books.
|Richard Baird and Brandon J. Pierce (photos by Aaron Rumley|
The fun begins first shot fired out of the box and the bantering gets hot and heavy when Butler tells Kelly that the telegram he just received informed him that Virginia seceded from the Union whereupon Kelly tells Butler that there is a Negro slave (actually there are three) in the compound (Fort Monroe in Virginia at the start of the Civil War) ‘demanding’ to speak to the Major.
They go on for about ten or so minutes on who and what the runaway slave is doing in his fort. Does he have a name? And why doesn’t Butler know who is in his compound.?
They move on for several more minutes about who has a right to ‘demand’ anything of the Major when finally, Mallory the now 'free slave' is brought in to see the major and for some reason Butler gets to stammering and stuttering with Mallory in the room and tells him to call him Ben.
The whole setup is quite funny while dealing with the very serious and human dilemma of slavery and what to do now that the slave is a ‘free slave’ and the complications that go along with that. Eventually Butler comes up with a plan once again, convoluted, to keep Mallory in the 'Union' fort.
|Bruce Turk, Brian Mackeyand Richard Baird|
Butler, played with expertise by Richard Baird, uses his commanding voice to frighten the bejuses out of his West Point befuddled Lieutenant Kelly, Butler’s adjunct (Brian Mackey), and turn the tables on the Confederate, most sure of himself, Major Cary (Bruce Turk.)
The only one standing up to the Major General is the runaway slave Shepard Mallory (Brandon J. Pierce), who has nothing to lose but his life. He wants asylum to escape death. To convine Butler even more Mallory shows Butler the scars on his back for having a 'different opinion'.
|Brian Mackey, Richard Baird and Brandon J. Pierce|
How they get around keeping Mallory, and what ensues along the way including the arrival of Major Cary to claim ‘his’ slave is a feast of words fit for a courtroom lawyer. Under artistic director David Ellenstein, who always has a twinkle in his eyes, Major Butler becomes a bigger than life character even though, as mentioned above his time in the military was short, and not very successful, his over the top wrangling is more than a footnote. *
I recommend you watch Mackey’s facial expressions. They are worth more than words.
Bruce Turk is perfect as the snotty Confederate Major. I’ll let you see for yourselves what Butler does to him.
Pierce, making his NCR debut (hopefully he’ll come back) manages to meet Baird (Butler) on his terms word for word: “You are an arrogant oddity!” and Mallory retorts “So are you!” No minced words here.
Set designer Marty Burnett designed the simple set consisting of a desk, chair, a cabinet against the windows for the Major’s favorite drink, sherry. To make a play like this work, both cast, crew and director have to work in harmony.
Baird who has appeared and directed several shows at NCR is excellent as the Major. He can turn on the charm as fast as looking like he’s ready to strangle someone. He’s most convincing including his physical look that shows him at least 30 or so pounds heavier with half balding head (Renetta Lloyd, costumes and Kathleen Kenna makeup artist.) Philip Korth is credited for props and Matthew Novotny, lighting. Last but not least Aaron Rumley is stage manager and sound designer,
If history and high stakes legal sparring is your game, I recommend you get into the action as both spectator and witness.
*Butler went on to two terms in the US Congress as an anti-war Democrat and serving as the Governor of Massachusetts. He even ran for President. But that was a no go. After his short time as a Union soldier, Butler’s life was anything boring. He opposed President Johnson’s reconstruction agenda and was the house manager in the Johnson impeachment proceedings. As Chairman of the House Committee on Reconstruction, Butler authored Ku Klux Act of 1871 and co-authored the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1875.
"Ben Butler” runs through November 14, 2021 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
Shows Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.
Tickets: northcoastrep.org; (858) 481-1055
Masks and proof of vaccination required.