Richard Strand’s play, Ben Butler, is the embodiment of what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Butler, a lawyer by training, entered the Civil War in charge of Fort Monroe, Virginia, a strategically located military post that was close to where British colonizers first landed in the area and established the settlement of Jamestown. Fort Monroe was officially in Virginia, which had joined the Confederacy, but the Union controlled Fort Monroe and it kept control throughout the course of the Civil War. Butler held the rank of Major General, but he had almost no military experience. He was a lawyer. His job was to hold the Fort as a Union encampment located not only in Virginia but in a strategic location. Apparently, he applied his training as a lawyer more than any particular military tactics in fulfilling his responsibility. Mr. Strand has written a comedy about the Civil War, an oddity in itself. Interestingly the play works, and North Coast Repertory Theatre pulls it off with aplomb.
Mr. Strand’s play opens with Butler (Richard Baird) receiving word from his adjutant, Lieutenant Kelly (Brian Mackey), that a Black slave has arrived at the Fort seeking refuge. The slave, whose name is eventually disclosed as Shepard Mallory (Brandon J. Pierce), turns out to be a canny respondent to Lawyer Butler’s attempts to figure out what to do with him. Butler is so flummoxed that he brings in a Confederate counterpart, Major Cary (Bruce Turk), to help him see if he can get around the Fugitive Slave Act. The situation gets wilder and wilder until Butler, out of frustration, invents a principle he called “contraband” to solve his problem. I won’t spoil how the principle applies – go see the show to find out.
I can see why Artistic Director David Ellenstein has been trying to produce this play since 2014. It’s not only a gem but exactly the kind of fare that the North Coast Repertory Theatre audience loves to devour. It’s thoughtful, smart, funny, and can be put on a single set (designed, as always by Marty Burnett). It also caters to the audience’s better nature – and, a bit, to its stereotypes and prejudices. The fact that it’s very funny helps mitigate the stereotypes. I’m sure I’ll never hear the word “collateral” again without at least cracking a sly smile.
Mr. Ellenstein directs, cannily, pulling all the humor he can from his cast. The cast responds with fine performances all ‘round, performances that serve to counteract the play’s weaknesses.
The rest of the technical work is solid: Matthew Novotny designed the lights, Moonlight Stage stalwart Renetta Lloyd designed the costumes, Phillip Korth the props, and Kathleen Kenna’s make-up transformed both Mr. Baird and Mr. Turk into different people. Aaron Rumley, a man of many talents, stage managed, designed the sound, and took the photos that accompany this review.
Ben Butler was a mediocre soldier but a decent politician. After the Civil War was over, he was elected to Congress as a Radical Republican, where he managed the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson and authored civil rights legislation. Eventually, he switched to the Democratic Party and not only served as Governor of Massachusetts but ran for President in 1884 on the Greenback Party ticket. He was definitely his own man, and that was the collateral he took with him from his experiences at Fort Monroe.
You have until November 14 to visit Solana Beach and find out why the collateral Butler called “contraband” is both funny and sad: go to it, go do it.
Performs Wednesdays and Sundays at 7pm; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm; Matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, plus Wednesday, November 3. The theatre is located in the rear of a large shopping center off Lomas Santa Fe Drive, and there is ample free parking in the center.