Ben Butler is indeed a little known chapter of the American Civil War. A play masterfully staged by North Coast Repertory Theatre

Performances running until November 21 at the Solana Beach Venue

Ben Butler_ Richard Baird (L) & Brandon J. Pierce - photo by Aaron Rumley
I have mentioned it before in these blog views and I will continue to do so because it is an important reminder and something that should be celebrated as well as recognized. Diving into historic chapters that are not talked about enough and need to be discussed more, through the magic of theatre I believe, is a game-changer. North Coast Repertory Theatre's latest production of Ben Butler, written by Richard Strand and directed by David Ellenstein, takes audiences back to Fort Monroe in Virginia during 1861, where General B.F Butler (played by Richard Baird) was serving as commander. Three slaves who had been building Confederate fortifications, slipped across rebel lines to Butler's fort seeking asylum. Shepard Mallory (Brandon J. Pierce) the leader of the three, asks to speak with Butler in order to explain his request and position. Surprised by the "audacity" Lieutenant Kelly (Brian Mackey), who is there to protect the commander as well as the fort is hesitant to let Shepard through. In a funny and caricaturesque way, things take a turn when part of the ownership represented by Major Cary (Bruce Turk), comes to the fort -demanding- the slaves be returned. Butler notices that Mallory is different in many aspects and is challenged to stay put while other options come.

The beginning of the two-hour piece was like a warm-up to a challenging workout. It is a ping-pong dynamic between Richard Baird and Brian Mackey. Heads are turning back and forth in order to keep up with the wordy/word-heavy dialogue. Baird's characterization as General B.F Butler -appearance-wise- is spot-on perfect. Reneta Lloyd's costume design is impeccable. The uniforms, Browne belts, straps, boots, etc accentuate the storytelling beautifully along with Marty Burnett's set design of the fort office with tastefully crafted and monogrammed storage chests, books, office supplies, and of course, a special corner for sherry which also plays an important role in the plot. Both Baird and Mackey are stoically hilarious. The nature of the roles demand so much stillness but at the same time, they are people and the portrayal brings out those human feelings like confusion, empathy, and doing what is right with comedic and heartfelt tones.
Ben Butler_ (L-R) Bruce Turk, Brian Mackey & Richard Baird photo by Aaron Rumley

Brandon J. Pierce's portrayal of Shepard Mallory is strong, towering, and challenging. Unpacking different layers that make up the complex and unfair reality of slavery. The only observation I would have (always paying attention to these details that maybe no one else does) is the choice of the ankle-type shoes. I felt there was a disconnect there. I have seen other stage production pictures with the choice of having the character barefoot, and being that probably closer to reality, I still feel a disconnect. The shoe choice took me out of the story a little bit, that is all.

The arrival of Major Cary towards the middle of the play adds more intrigue and excitement to the moment. Bruce Turk in his few minutes on stage conveys the prideful and insulting personality of the Major being in rival territory. While being blindfolded, heated conversations take place and get even louder when they briefly take the blindfold off. Simulating a movie when people are rooting for the good guy to tell off the bad guy. Composing a very funny scene between Turk, Mackey, and Baird.

North Coast Rep's production of Ben Butler brings all the notes. A flawless cast gifts two hours of suspense, laughter, and reflection. It is a must-see. 

And, it also must be said that the lighting choices used to accentuate a couple of still scenes, oh! that was really good and awesomely crafted. You need to go and see for yourself.

Playing until November 21, check availability along with CCD updates on their website.


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