First Look: ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre


Actors are the ultimate time travelers. One day you’re rockin’ out to late ‘70s music on a Greek island, and then you’re an escaped slave during the Civil War, trying to outwit a Union General.

Yup, just another day at the office. Or on stage.

For Patrick Coleman, playing Pepper in “Mamma Mia!”  last month at Kavinoky Theatre was just plain fun. His next role on the Kav’s stage in “Ben Butler” is less frisky and more daring. He’s a slave on the run in 1861 and his escape is to join the Union Army. Patrick takes this seismic shift in stride. “It’s so much fun to work in both capacities,” he says. “As an actor, I’m usually cast in musicals more so than plays. In ‘Ben Butler,’ I’m playing a three dimensional, fully functioning person.”

What Patrick means is that his character, Shepard Mallory, isn’t drawn from playwright Richard Strand’s imagination. ‘Ben Butler’ is a historical comedy about decisions, choices, and that moral push-pull that makes for real life tension and ambiguity and a great night at the theatre, too.

Patrick is drawn to his character and this role. “The subject material is dense and heavy, but it’s a comedy. It’s so challenging and so fulfilling at the same time especially considering how relevant the story still is.”

Background: Commander General Ben Butler is, by law, supposed to turn over his newest volunteers to their rightful owners, a true-to-his-party Confederate General. But Butler and his staff are compromised: uphold the old law of a land in transition, or follow their human heart and conscious?

Strand’s rewrite of history is bright and sparkling, with plenty of smart banter between characters. Patrick loves this wit and interplay with veteran actor John Fredo in the title role. “This role did strike a chord with me,” he says.” “I wanted to play a character who is not so clearly defined at face value.”

Patrick plays into his character’s humanity, saying, “Shepard Mallory is brilliant an a huge manipulator. Humble and arrogant at the same time. It’s very human. People are very rarely one thing. He is just a person who is doing his best to make the best out of a really negative situation. He has the intelligence and charisma to pull it off.”

So how can a historical reflection that’s about war, brutality, slavery, and a society at war with itself be a comedy? Patrick has an easy answer: “It’s the writing,” he says. “The exchanges between Ben Butler and Shepard Mallory are so witty and so quick.” Listen for the times when the actors quote each other, and poke holes in each other’s arguments using their words. Patrick credits director Robert Waterhouse with giving every scene the weight it needs with that lift at the end.

“Ben Butler” is on stage at the Kavinoky Theatre from March 2 – 25, 2018. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance Of Buffalo.