By Mary Boyle
Generally speaking, the terms "Civil War" and "comedy" don't usually appear in the same sentence, but in Richard Strand's play, Ben Butler, they go together perfectly. Through April 28th, the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings this one part historical drama, one part biographical story, and completely entertaining bit of theatre to the Cabot stage at the Broadway Theatre Center in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward.
In May of 1861, the Civil War was still in its infancy. General Benjamin Butler (Drew Brhel), who was recently a lawyer, now finds himself in command of Fort Monroe in Virgina, where Lieutenant Kelly (Chase Stoeger) informs him that a runaway slave demands to see him. Intrigued by the boldness of the slave and the affect he is having on the Lieutenant, the General finally relents. Being from the North, Butler has no experience with slaves, but he realizes right away that Shepard Mallory (Marques Causey) is "peculiar." Mallory asks the General for sanctuary in the Fort, but the General's hands are tied: the law states that runaway slaves must be returned to their owners, and he's already received word from Major Cary (David Sapiro) of the Confederate Army that he will be arriving at the Fort to return the slave back to his owner. Mallory insists that if he is returned, he will surely be killed. What is a law-abiding General to do?
Playwright Richard Strand found the story within a footnote in a biography of Abraham Lincoln. "One of the things I love most about Ben Butler is that it takes characters from our American story that historians have cast in bit parts and gives them [the] leading roles they deserve," said Director Michael Cotey. "History is messy; much of it only making sense in retrocspect, if we're lucky. As Frederick Douglass said, 'We cannot see the end from the beginning. We live but today, and the measureless shores of the future are wisely hid from us."
All four actors are no stranger to the MCT stage, or most Milwaukee stages, for that matter. In fact, Drew Brehl is no stranger to being a General, as he played the fabulous Major General in The Pirates of Penzance with Skylight Music Theatre several seasons ago. Marques Causey, a Milwaukee Native, was seen in MCT's Strange Snow this season, as well as in their productions of The Brothers Size and Picnic, and is brilliant as Shepard Mallory. Chris Stoeger is wonderfully funny as Lieutenant Kelly, and David Sapiro is perfect as the snide Major Cary.
I absolutely loved this production, from the stellar acting to the excellent set design by Lisa Schlenker and the spot-on costumes by Lyndsey Kuhlmann. Ben Butler is cleverly written and laugh-out-loud comical, yet powerful and uplifting at the same time. This is a production that all ages will enjoy, so bring the whole family (kids 10 and up, I suggest) and prepare for a great time and the very best kind of history lesson!
Ben Butler runs through April 28th at the Cabot Theatre, located within the Broadway Theater Center at 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward. Tickets may be purchased by calling 414.291.7800 or online at milwaukeechambertheatre.com.
About Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee's third largest non-musical theatre company, has long been recognized as producing first-rate, thought-provoking drama and a major contributor to the rich cultural and economic life of the community. One of the city's oldest, professional theatre companies, MCT was co-founded in 1975 by two local actors, Montgomery Davis and Ruth Schudson, who envisioned a space where audiences could open their minds to new theatrical ideas and Milwaukee's theatre professionals could broaden their skills and apply their craft. C. Michael Wright, a local director and actor, was appointed as the company's second artistic director in September of 2005 and, under his leadership, MCT has produced smaller, more intimate productions that feature emerging local talent, expanding its programming in order to develop new voices, such as the annual Young Playwrights Series and the Montgomery Davis Play Development Series, honoring the company's founding artistic director.
Join MCT for their 45th anniversary season, and C. Michael Wright's 15th and final season as producing artistic director, as they present Unnecessary Farce, Fires in the Mirror, Jeeves at Sea, No Wake and Gently Down the Stream.