Theatre review: Burien Actors Theatre brings thought-provoking play, Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler,” to the stage this October
The arrival of three runaway slaves at a Union Army fort is the catalyst for the story that unfolds in Richard Strand’s “Ben Butler” – a play that raises questions as pertinent today as in the time period it portrays.
Burien Actors Theatre presents the Northwest premiere of the historical drama through Oct. 22.
A colorful major general in the Union Army during the Civil War, Benjamin Franklin Butler, takes center stage in the tale.
The historical figure, a businessman and lawyer from Massachusetts, gained notoriety with the unique method he invented to free fugitive slaves.
Butler’s office is the setting for Strand’s play, which takes places in the first week of the war.
The major has been placed in command of the Union outpost Fort Monroe in Virginia, right after it seceded from the nation. Butler, played by Michael Mendonsa, establishes himself as the man in charge and expresses his extreme displeasure when receiving “demands” from anyone other than his superiors in the army and government -- or his wife.
His world changes when he meets one of the runaway slaves, Shepard Mallory, played by Sharif Ali.
Mallory pleads his case and tries to convince the major general to give him sanctuary at the fort – and to allow him to enlist in the Union Army with his fellow runaways.
While Mallory impresses Butler with his wit and humor, Butler refuses, explaining that he is required by the Fugitive Slave Act to return the men to “their owners.”
The two men debate the case and, in the process, learn that they have more in common than they would have thought, including their equally stubborn natures.
Despite its serious themes, the play stands as a successful comedy, with a number of laugh-out-loud moments.
Even though there are only a handful of characters, and all the action is confined to one room, the show still manages to keep viewers enthralled through the length of the performance.
The other two characters -- Mark Fox as Butler’s right-hand man Lt. Kelly and Dave Tucker as Major Cary from the Confederate Army – add to the drama.
The main characters are dynamic and complex – and the perfect pair to take viewers on a thoughtful journey, using word play and comedy to open the door for discussion of race and politics in the U.S.
The timing of this production is particularly poignant for Burien – and the rest of the country – telling a story that explores the plight of those seeking refuge and sanctuary – and for a look at the ability to be open-minded and forward thinking.
Designers for the show include Albie Clementi on the set, Zanna King for lighting, Cyndi Baumgardner in props, Maggie Larrick in costumes and Eric Dickman in sound.
Mark Fox with John Lynch created the fight choreography, while Scott Hille made scar prosthetics. Gavin McLean served as coach for dialects.
Rachel Rene serves as director and Michelle Rodriguez as stage manager.
The performance begins at 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays and 2 p.m. for the Sunday matinee. The theatre is located 14501 4th Ave SW.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit http://burienactorstheatre.org.