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Review: North Coast Rep’s ‘Ben Butler’ finds unexpected humor in Civil War story

Brandon J. Pierce and Richard Baird in North Coast Repertory Theatre's "Ben Butler."
(Aaron Rumley)

The risk-taking comedy is based on a real-life turning point in American history

On the page, Richard Strand’s play “Ben Butler” has an audacious plot. It’s a sometimes wacky comedy about a runaway slave negotiating for his life with a Union Army general at the dawn of the Civil War. On the stage, this risk-taking play that opened Saturday at North Coast Repertory Theatre actually works.

Thanks to canny writing, thoughtful direction by David Ellenstein and committed performances by its four-member cast, “Ben Butler” is not only funny, it’s also an entertaining character study of two men whose lives intersected in real life — Union Major General Benjamin Butler and escaped Virginia field hand Shepard Mallory at Fort Monroe, Va., in May 1861. According to historical records, Butler would later turn away a Confederate major who arrived to collect Mallory and two other slaves, declaring the men “contrabands of war,” a strategic decision that would ultimately lead to the Emancipation Proclamation 19 months later.

Much is known about the rotund Butler, an irascible, brilliant, cruel and sometimes-corrupt lawyer and politician. But Mallory disappeared into history. So while Strand’s play is fact-based, just how these two men interacted is a product of the playwright’s imagination.

In the play’s first scene, the two characters’ back-and-forth feels a bit awkward and unrealistic. There’s also a very thin line to navigate between comedy and dark drama, like when Mallory lifts his tattered shirt to reveal the whipping scars on his back. But by the second of the play’s four scenes, the fast-moving play finds its mark and soars — thanks to the script’s witty repartée, reveals and its entertaining character exposition.

Starring in the title role is North Coast veteran Richard Baird, who’s nearly unrecognizable beneath a generously padded uniform costume and with his usually thick brown hair shaved back into a bald pate. He’s ornery, wily, anxious and arrogant as the exasperated Butler, who is outwitted again and again by the equally intelligent and temperamental Mallory, who is played in a fine, shape-shifting performance by Brandon J. Pierce.

Pierce’s intensity, fearlessness and dignity in the role helps overcome some of his character’s intentionally anachronistic lines, which sound very 21st century in insight and reflection. The humor in the play comes from recognizing how flawed and alike these two men are and how they push each other’s buttons to make change.

Bruce Turk is excellent as the pompous and condescending Confederate Major Carey, who is amusingly outsmarted in his mission to retrieve the slaves. And an endearing Brian Mackey completes the cast as Butler’s not-too-bright adjutant, Union Lt. Kelly, who serves as a comic foil for Butler’s bullying behavior.

The physical production looks smart. Marty Burnett designed the general’s office set, Renetta Lloyd designed the richly appointed uniform period costumes, Matthew Novotny designed lighting and Aaron Rumley designed sound. “Ben Butler” runs just 90 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission. It’s short, smart, well-acted and surprisingly true, at least most of it.

‘Ben Butler’

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7 p.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Through Nov. 14.

Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

Tickets: $54-$60

Phone: (858) 481-1055

Online: northcoastrep.org

COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of performance date required. Masks are required indoors.


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