Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Having just assumed his position at Fort Monroe in May 1861, Butler is informed by Lieutenant Kelly that three fugitive runaway slaves have come to the Fort seeking asylum and that one has demanded to speak with him. When Butler meets Shepard Mallory he tells him there is nothing he can do, since the Fugitive Slave Act says slaves must be returned to their owners, even if they are fighting for the other side of the war. When Mallory proclaims that Butler is his last hope, and knowing that a major in the Confederate Army is on his way to demand the return of the slaves, the wheels in Butler's legal brain are set in motion to figure out if there is a way he can twist the law to Mallory's benefit–an action that would ultimately change the course of American history as well.
Butler was a lawyer before he ending up as a major general in the Union Army, and Strand uses facts about Butler's profession as well as some information on Mallory to craft a play that is both interesting, hilarious, and full of facts and witty dialogue. Many of the scenes resemble something you'd associate with Aaron Sorkin's fast-paced interplay of dialogue on a TV show like "The West Wing." While not all of dialogue is period appropriate and, outside of Butler, the characters could be fleshed out just a bit more, the comedy is sharp, the pace brisk, and the characters of Butler and Kelly grow and become better people from their encounter with Mallory. There are also some interesting realizations that Strand bakes into the script, mainly that most of the individuals fighting for the Union have never spoken to a Black person before but are already prejudiced against them, and that men like Butler, due to their profession and background, were put into leadership positions in the Army very quickly.
Under Lee Cooley's clear and spirited yet also sensitive direction, the cast deliver sharp, realistic performances saturated with humanity. As Butler, Keath Hall is wonderful. With a shaved head for the role in order to more closely resemble the actual Butler, Hall's intense manner, bright and inquisitive eyes, and commanding stage presence make Butler a forceful and imposing man. But Hall's portrayal also paints Butler with many layers, including an unpredictable nature, a raging fury, a huge amount of arrogance, an abundance of charm, and a deep concern for Mallory's plight. When you have a playwright who knows how to write a good character, solid direction, and an actor like Hall, you end up with a man who is not only intriguing but also fascinating to watch.
Justin Hosten is very good as the complicated Shepard Mallory. Strand presents Mallory as a well-spoken, intelligent man who knows how to read, which goes against the usual way slaves have been presented, and Hosten creates a man who, while many people say he is "peculiar," is as interesting to watch as Hall's Butler. Mallory may be stubborn, impulsive, and headstrong but from his clear and strong performance Hosten also lets us see that Mallory is simply trying to do whatever he can to save himself and, ultimately, his wife and fellow slaves.
As Lieutenant Kelly, the young man who graduated from West Point and follows protocols to the letter, Leonidas Karandreas is excellent, with great facial expressions and sharp comic timing that get big laughs. At first, Kelly is suspicious of Mallory and even treats him poorly, but, like Hall's portrayal of Butler, Karandreas' endearing performance lets us see how the experience of being around Mallory has changed Kelly and made him realize his initial beliefs were wrong. Tom Endicott is hilarious as the pompous Major John B. Cary, the man sent to retrieve Mallory who finds he's met his match with Butler. Endicott's solid Southern accent and blustery portrayal are great and clearly depict Carey as a flustered and condescending man who finds being at the Fort quite unpleasant.
Cooley's direction ensures the portrayals are realistic and the serious moments resonate but also that every humorous line and situation shines bright. His staging for the in-the-round production is excellent, with natural movement by all of the actors to allow the audience to never feel like they are missing anything, and the intimacy of the space pulls you into the action. Cheryl Schaar's set and props include many period touches, including archival photos and other items on the walls around the stage, and the costumes by Teresa Knudson are sharp and character specific.
With witty dialogue that makes for a lively repartée, insightful encounters, and interesting characters, Ben Butler is a fascinating historical biographical drama about the Civil War and also a crowd-pleasing comedy treat.
Ben Butler runs through July 8, 2023, at the Don Bluth Front Row Theatre, 8989 E. Vía Linda #118, Scottsdale AZ. For tickets and information, please visit www.donbluthfrontrowtheatre.com or call 480-314-0841.
Directed by Lee Cooley
Cast: (in order of appearance)