Theatre Review: ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre

The cast of ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre. Photo by Gene Witkowski.

It’s a heck of a way to start a new job. Ben Butler still has boxes to unpack in his Fort Monroe, Virginia office. He’s a Union general and Virginia has just voted to join the Confederacy. His West Point-educated Lieutenant is an over-eager servant who aims to please but can’t help but fall short. And then a trio of runaway slaves appear at the Fort. One even has the audacity to demand a moment of General Butler’s time. A slave that makes demands. Astonishing.

‘Ben Butler’ is one to see.

Perfectly-paced, sharp, and witty, “Ben Butler” is based on a real moment in the American Civil War with haunting voices that still ring true in 2018. Who is really free? Are all Negroes (his word) the same? When is an established protocol wrong? Richard Strand drives several subtle messages home in this piece, woven between bursts of clever word play.

John Fredo plays General Butler expertly. Stout, sturdy, with great fringe of hair, he tosses smart banter with ease. No surprise that he’s a lawyer with just a month of military experience. Christopher Evans is a hoot as career Army officer Lt. Kelly who  is trying to prove his worth to his new commander. Evans has the Army walk-stop-pivot down pat, especially when he heads for the door only to stop at the sound of Butler’s voice. He learned on day one that very few people can make a demand on Major Butler. So when the feistiest slave Shepard Mallory demands – er, requests – a meeting, Lt. Kelly has to deliver the news. It’s here where the underscoring lessons begin: Lt. Kelly doesn’t know the names of the escapees. Is it because they’re black or because they aren’t military issue soldiers? He does admit that he’s none too fond of Mallory and his brash and bold ways. But something happens when Mallory and Butler engage: they can match wits and words. They have reasoned and reasonable discussions.

Patrick Coleman shows his real acting chops with this role, swiftly shifting from swagger to flashes of well-placed reluctance.  Watching Fredo and Coleman dance with their words is brilliant, a tribute to a smart script and Robert Waterhouse’s tight direction. Rounding out the cast is Tom Loughlin as Major Cary, a confederate general who’s back to claim the slaves-as-property to return them to their owner. Loughlin is lovingly detestable as the pompous and not-too-bright general who can’t admit that people are people and that America is poised for change. Love Fredo and Loughlin’s belly to belly dialogue as generals with two points of view on the one law that governs them.

Once again David King’s set wins. Whitewashed walls behind rough stone with purposefully elegant appointments as props make a military office look like a gentleman’s library.

‘Ben Butler’ is one to see. The dialogue is clever: listen for symphonic reiteration with words. Those passages are there for a reason. The messages aren’t frozen in 1861: we still need them today. And there’s no substitute for rapier-sharp dialogue delivered by talented actors.

Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.

“Ben Butler” runs until March 25, 2018 and is presented at The Kavinoky Theatre. For more information, click here.

First Look: ‘Ben Butler’ at Kavinoky Theatre

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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.