Friday, November 20, 2009

God bless us everyone, even the racists . . .

Just how far can the sentimental form of the Christmas pageant stretch? (At left, a Nazi officer decorates the tree at Auschwitz.)

That's the question raised - and, alas, probably answered - by A Civil War Christmas, now playing at the Huntington Theatre. The idea behind the show is undeniably intriguing; since with our new mixed-race President we are re-enacting many of the racist throes of the Civil War, playwright Paula Vogel has been inspired to create a holiday show set in those troubled times. And I admit, I admire her chutzpah; as to whether her idea counts as a flash of sheer genius or utter folly, however, I must admit I am filled with doubt.

For to be blunt, the Civil War conjures a level of tragedy that would challenge Shakespeare or Sophocles - and neither genius, I think, would opt to treat it in the form of a Christmas pageant. Yet Paula Vogel thinks she can pull that off; as Seth and Amy might say, "Really!?!" For let's again be honest: Ms. Vogel is a talented, but second-tier, playwright even among our living writers, and the Christmas pageant is - how to put this? - a highly restrictive form.

Then there's that troubling (but clearly intended) parallel with the present day. The show is set in Christmas 1864, just after Lincoln's re-election, when his popularity was buoyed by victories in the South; of course no one knew then that within months he would be dead, assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Needless to say, the threat of assassination is part of the current zeitgeist, too. Indeed, many Republican Christians are praying for the death of the President, and even selling T-shirts about their hopes for his demise. So the very concept of A Civil War Christmas - its reason for being - requires that the moral conundrums of the past be grappled with, and somehow made to resonate with those of the present day. How do we accept John Wilkes Booth, or his descendants, at the Christmas table? And how do we deck the halls when our cheer depends on Sherman's March - or a rout in Afghanistan?

Yet in the end it must be said, I'm afraid, that whenever Paula Vogel ventures near any of these cultural third rails, A Civil War Christmas becomes irritating, and sometimes infuriating; indeed, it often plays as a kind of parody of the patronizing evasions of political correctness. Vogel caricatures both Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln (surely among the most complex figures in American history), and paints John Wilkes Booth as villainous but clueless (and his cohorts as stooges). Her staging ideas are embarrasingly bald - a ghost of the Lincolns' dead son drums from a balcony, and there always seems to be a coffin nearby whenever honest Abe makes an exit. Even worse, she mostly dodges dramatizing the problem of racism, even though that's central to her project; instead (as usual) this playwright consistently returns to issues of sexism and feminine empowerment - which is a bit like pulling Susan B. Anthony into a play about the Holocaust. And then there's all the simple, blunt evidence of her bizarrely confident moral and political stupidity - I won't even discuss Vogel's jokes about the Emancipation Proclamation, or her sudden bursts of blank "irony" about the bloody progress of Sherman through Georgia; these gaffes only make you almost defensive about the South and its "beautiful cause."

The author is on firmer ground when she sticks to lesser-known historical figures (or blends of historical figures), and plays at being a New Age Dickens, tugging at our heartstrings with little girls lost on the streets of D.C. (on Christmas Eve!!) or innocent Confederate prisoners of war facing Certain Death. It's possible, in fact, that if Vogel had simply avoided the major players, and actually grappled with the issue of racism, she might have been able to make her rich (actually, overstuffed) pageant of war victims work. Still, even in her scenes of the common folk, Vogel's aim sometimes goes wild - when her wounded Union boys began singing in Hebrew over a fallen Jewish comrade, I almost laughed; when the victim rose from his death bed and dashed toward a blast of Heavenly Light, I almost threw up.

Caught in all this cultural and conceptual crossfire is a cast that deserves better. Poor Ken Cheeseman is required to earn cheap laughs as a horse (above left, with Molly Schreiber), and then - even worse - as Abe Lincoln! That he manages this at all is worth some kind of award. Karen MacDonald, likewise, does what she can with Vogel's sitcom-level portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln. Jacqui Parker gets better material, and exudes a palpable sense of stricken strength throughout (at right, with Delance Minefee). She also sings affectingly, although the versatile Gilbert Glenn Brown must take the musical honors of the night with his haunting version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." I wish we'd heard more from the wonderful actress/vocalist Uzo Aduba, whom we haven't seen since the New Rep's Dessa Rose a few years back, but I was glad to see several local up-and-comers, such as Jason Bowen, Stephen Russell and Ed Hoopman, acquit themselves well in a variety of parts.

Indeed, with the well-sung carols and the better sketches - as well as the charming turns by local choruses before the show - you might be able to patch together a bittersweet Christmas memory from this strange, eventful history. Or, you might consider it an oddity that tops even David Bowie and Bing Crosby's notorious duet to "The Little Drummer Boy." As for me, I think I need to see the original "Grinch" again, and pronto. Now there's a Christmas show.

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