The Plagiarists at Berger Park Cultural Center. By Jessica Wright Buha. Directed by Jack Dugan Carpenter. With ensemble cast. 1hr 20mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Aeneas Sagar Hemphill
If you're going to name your music-infused play about the Civil War—one of the bloodiest conflicts in recorded history—something as directly evocative as War Song, I'm going to expect something at least in the same world as the raw, unhinged grandiosity of Titus Andronicus' The Monitor. Far be it from me to dictate how a historical period should be depicted, but somehow I've yet to see anything Civil War–related onstage that wasn't a stilted, sanitized museum-piece interpretation. The Plagiarists' effort fails to overcome this major pitfall. It even embraces it. The war song itself, composed and arranged by Mallory Nees, is lovely on its own and deserves credit for incorporating some Civil War–era songs and styles, but on the whole it lands in some intersection between indie-folk and show tune, providing a precious varnish to an awkward and often incoherent exploration of race and the Civil War.
The museum-piece feel may be partly a result of the company's method. The Plagiarists are known to lift directly from whatever sources they can find in devising their work. War Song makes use of text from Union soldier Christian Fleetwood, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Army nurse Susie King Taylor and W.E.B. DuBois--the first three functioning as major characters. Fleetwood (Breon Arzell), our protagonist, struggles to complete his speech "The Negro as Soldier" when he is visited by his wife Sara (Jyreika Guest) and the spirits of Lincoln (a charmingly deadpan Derik Marcussen) and Whitman (Christopher Marcum), who serve as his muses. There's great potential in this set-up, and admittedly the idea of Walt Whitman spending most of the play baking (or trying to bake) a pie is pretty amusing.
But once the play gets moving, it's evident there's little depth to the exploration. The text comes out, but it's barely investigated. There are arguments, but they're repeated more than they're developed. Even the attempt to personalize Fleetwood's struggle falls flat because the conflict failed to invite intestment from the beginning or even build in any way. Azell has nowhere to go but righteous indignation, or as it manifests in this production, increasing his volume. The meat of theater—the interpersonal conflict, the exploration of people—is noticeably absent, leaving only the ideas and the history. Despite the significance and beauty of the work used, it's unclear what was truly gained from this kind of recontextualization.