Sunday, 30 December 2012

Paula Vogel's A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS at the New York Theatre Workshop

     Over the past three decades, Paula Vogel has experimented with different ways of telling a story on stage, alternating direct address to the audience and dramatic scenes. Her early plays THE BALTIMORE WALTZ and HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE have become much revived canonical works. Now she has given us a wonderful theater piece, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS, mixing narration, scenes and period songs sung by the superb eleven-member cast who play a variety of roles. A lot of earlier works of literature and theater come to mind as one watches Vogel's play, ranging from Thornton Wilder's OUR TOWN to Harriet Beecher Stowe's UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (used ironically as it is a white boy who crosses the ice and almost gets killed by a Black Union soldier) to history and slave narratives. In the last half hour or so, I was reminded of D.W. Griffith's silent film epics as the various narrative arcs cross cut with increasing speed. Vogel isn't ashamed to use the tricks of melodrama, particularly suspense. There are moments toward the end that one felt that the audience was collectively holding its breath.The songs, gospel songs, carols and hymns are beautifully sung by the ensemble. Other than one pianist, all other instruments (guitars, banjos, drums) are played by the cast.
     In the course of the interlocking stories, we see Mary Lincoln (Alice Ripley) in both her difficult moments and her goodness as she visits dying soldiers. Walt Whitman, almost a Santa figure, also visits the hospital to help the dying in their final moments. We see freed Blacks in Washington carving a new life for themselves but protecting each other from lingering racism. There are Confederate and Union soldiers in the last months of the war and John Wilkes Booth trying to kidnap Lincoln to protect his beloved Confederacy. The only real villains are the few remaining slave owners. If anything, A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS is a celebration of people defeating their worst instincts and helping one another. Yet the show isn't the least bit syrupy. There's real suspense and tension and a panoply of rich characters.
     Tina Landau has given Vogel's play exactly the production it deserves. There's a two-level set made out of dark wooden planks. The actors' bits of costume are hanging on hooks in the stage left aisle (for the most part, the actors are in simple modern dress). There is also Landau's characteristic colorless lighting with actors sometimes holding simple floodlights. The cast -- truly an ensemble -- is uniformly excellent.
     A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS deserves to become a holiday classic, not only in New York but around the country. It's a celebration of redemptive aspects of our history and of the true spirit of Christmas.
A CIVIL WAR CHRISTMAS by Paula Vogel. Directed by Tina Landau. New York Theatre Workshop. December 30, 2012

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