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How to Load a Musket

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - January 16, 2020

Lucy Taylor
Photo by Russ Rowland
To fire a musket, there are thirteen separate motions that you do first. If you already know what these are, you will feel right at home among the dedicated Revolutionary War and Civil War reenactors who are lovingly depicted in How to Load a Musket, a sometimes comic, sometimes serious, and always compelling docudrama opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters. But even if all of this is new to you, it is likely you will come to appreciate the dedication of these devotees of history who show a commitment that takes them far beyond the realm of casual hobby or cosplay.

Playwright Talene Monahon, better known as an actress (The Government Inspector at the Duke, Bobbie Clearly at the Roundabout Underground), is a self-described history buff who began interviewing reenactors in 2015. She has shaped the play from verbatim transcripts of these interviews, and the resulting dialog is as idiosyncratic and engaging as the real-life individuals who are being portrayed by the first-rate cast of eight who whip on and off the stage playing eighteen different roles among them.

How to Load a Musket is at its most compelling when it sticks to the world these enthusiasts inhabit away from their daily lives. There is the dentist who decorates his office with Revolutionary War paraphernalia, the widower who has found refuge in the companionship of like-minded reenactors, and the actress-turned-fifer who loves performing for an audience of thousands who turn out for the elaborately staged battle events. We learn, as well, that this is an expensive pastime to pursue, especially for anyone who is serious about it. Period uniforms and weapons, some of which are displayed on the set, are difficult to acquire, and authenticity demands a great deal of research and a dedication to details. Hardcore reenactors insist on sewing their clothing by hand and eschew even modern buttonholes.

The gentle offbeat humor that informs the first half of the 80-minute play begins to change direction as we move closer to the present time. The politics of the country makes a dramatic leap from the Obama era to the Trump presidency, and the reenactors find themselves thrust into a different sort of limelight. White Southerners who participate in Civil War battle scenarios, in particular, are labeled as racists and white supremacists, and at least one elaborately planned reenactment has to be called off because of a credible bomb threat. African-American participants are more and more reluctant to be enlisted to play slaves, and a black performance artist who goes by the name "Dread Scott" organizes his own re-creation of an 1811 slave rebellion. The once insular world of reenactment has become very complicated and divisive in a time of us vs. them, in which the story of this country is rarely examined beyond the superficial or without bias.

The production itself is well suited to the intimate space of one of 59E59 Theater's smaller upstairs venues, and the excellent cast under Jaki Bradley's direction provides a wonderful ensemble feel to the entire evening. Among the performers, I was particularly taken with Lucy Taylor as the brassy-voiced fifer, and with the popular audience-pleaser Adam Chanler-Berat, who plays five different characters, including a woman who specializes in performing as Martha Washington. For Talene Monahon, the playwright, this is an auspicious premiere event.

How to Load a Musket
Through January 26, 2020
59E59 Theaters - Theater C, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current performance schedule: