The Theater of the American South will present Shiloh Rules, Los Angeles playwright and screenwriter Doris Baizley’s offbeat comedy/drama about six women who meet at Shiloh National Military Park, on May 13-15, 20-22, and 27-29 in the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre at Barton College in Wilson, NC.
Staged by critically acclaimed Durham actress, director, and playwright Katja Hill, Shiloh Rules stars several of the Triangle’s finest actresses as four Civil War re-enactors, a park ranger, and a greedy souvenir seller who meet on the Shiloh battlefield, during a modern-day reenactment of one of the War Between the States’ bloodiest battles.
The Civil War (1861-65) — or the War of Northern Aggression, as some of us still call it hereabouts — celebrates its sesquicentennial in 2011, so it is fitting that it will take center stage during the Theater of the American South’s annual festival of Southern plays, food, and culture, which also features performances of The Civil War in Song & Legend, written and performed by critically acclaimed American troubadour Bill Schustik on May 12, 14, 15, 19, 21, 22, 26, 28, and 29 at the Edna Boykin Cultural Center in downtown Wilson.
“Gary Cole, the producer of Theater of the American South, approached me in late January with this script,” recalls guest director Katja Hill. “I’d never heard of this playwright before; and I was skeptical of directing a play about the Civil War, because I thought it would be hard to get an audience to reconsider familiar territory in a new way. And upon the sesquicentennial of the beginning of the war, I would want to choose material very carefully and respectfully — preferably something that makes sense of how we relate to the war today, and questions what relevance, if any, the war has for us in modern times.”
But, Hill claims, “The play is larger than it first appears. We meet six remarkable women who are involved in different ways in a re-enactment of the Battle of Shiloh at Shiloh National Military Park in southwestern Tennessee. [Shiloh Rules] is set in 2011, but all the characters go back in time to 1862 through a re-enactment that becomes terrifyingly real.”
Hill adds, “I like the play because its unique casting of women in a Civil War re-enactment cultivates an innocence in our audience and, hopefully, a new receptiveness to hearing an old story told in a new way. Much like the events of the actual Battle of Shiloh, the characters go into the re-enactment expecting a certain outcome, only to be surprised by what they find. And I hope audiences will have the same experience.”
Katja Hill confesses, ” I’ve always been fascinated by Civil War re-enactors. Why do they do what they do? Are they enchanted by people from the past whom they presume are somehow superior to them? Do they suppose things were better in ‘the olden timey days,’ whenever they were, as most of us do? Do they assume there is a greater distance between who we are now and who we were then, seeking a connection through time in donning the clothes of the past?
“Whatever the reason, [being re-enactors] is very close to our experience as actors and playmakers of every stripe,” Hill claims. “And the discovery I continually make when I play a character from another time is that there is absolutely no difference between who we were then and who we are today. There is no such thing as ‘period behavior.’ Only the clothes change.”
Hill declares, “I believe playmaking springs from a desire to find connection with people, whether it’s with audiences, or with the fictional characters we play. In the case of re-enacting a battle, every re-enactor I’ve met has spoken of a sense of pride and honor they feel when they don the clothes of a Confederate or Union solider and try to retrace the steps of a certain battle.
“I didn’t know anything about the Battle of Shiloh before reading this play,” Katja Hill reveals, “but it’s very important that [playwright Doris] Baizley wrote Shiloh Rules and not, say, Antietam Rules or Gettysburg Rules. General Grant once wrote that Shiloh was probably one the most misunderstood battles of the war, but it was especially notable for its psychological impact. Over 23,000 were killed or wounded. At the time, this sum of death and injury outnumbered total casualties from the American Revolution, War of 1812, and Spanish American War combined.”
On April 6, 1862, Hill points out, “The Confederates launched a sneak attack on the Union camp near Pittsburg Landing on the Tennessee River after a day-long 23-mile hike up from Corinth, Mississippi. General Sidney Johnston ordered the attack against the warnings of his second in command, General Beauregard.
“Johnston, a West Point graduate, had a lot to prove after some unimpressive leadership in prior battles,” claims Hill. “The Confederates won the battle on the first day of their attack, April 6, 1862, blasting the Union army senseless with the greatest collection of cannons seen yet in American battle. But Johnston and Beauregard didn’t know that the Union was sending reinforcements to General Grant down the river. Buell showed up that night with a freshly rested and well-armed troops, spinning fortune and fate to defeat the Confederates the next day. Johnston died from a bullet to an artery in his leg. And Beauregard ordered the Confederate retreat on April 7th at about 2:30 p.m.”
Katja Hill says, “In early April, I went to Shiloh and Corinth to visit the battlefield and understand the setting of the battle. As the playwright states, ‘Shiloh is the Hebrew word for Place of Peace,’ and I believed it upon my visit.
“I’d call that experience life-changing,” says Hill. “I never figured I would ever become a Civil War buff, but I think I’m turning into one of those battlefield tourists prematurely.”
Hill says, “Shiloh is about as pretty as a place to die as you would ever find. The sheer natural beauty of the park, which is over 4,000 acres wide, makes it difficult to imagine the defilement of cannon fire and carnage. Bloody Pond, the final resting place for thousands of dying men crawling to find their last drink of water, looks as genteel as a Monet painting. It was this timeless sense of springtime pastoral beauty I wanted [scenic designer] Chris Bernier to bring to our set — and that is what he has accomplished. Just like Shiloh itself, it feels like you’re retreating from the real world. Everything is quiet and hushed … until the real battle begins.”
In addition to director Katja Hill, set designer Chris Bernier, and producer Gary Cole, the Theater of the American South creative team for Shiloh Rules includes lighting designer Liz Droessler, costume designer Colleen Saucedo, properties manager and fight choreographer Jesse Jones, sound designer Chris Droessler, and stage manager Mary Misertino.
Katja Hill says the set for Shiloh Rules is simple — “Trees, rocks, a pond. Dirt and leaves. A forest in southwest Tennessee” — but the show’s lighting scheme is more complex — “A symphony of light from dawn to dusk. The beauty and terror of the natural world, from a thunderstorm to the magic hour. The ferocious light of cannons and guns.”
She adds, “We have beautifully simple dresses reconstructed from the Civil War era, as well as a few modern-day clothes. The female re-enactors don Union and Confederate male uniforms at one point as well….
“At the top of the show,” says director Katja Hill, “four re-enactors have invaded the Shiloh Military Park before dawn in order to get the jump on the re-enactment. Clara May Abbott [Mary Rowland], a longtime Union Army nurse re-enactor, is struggling to get Meg Barton [Hilary Edwards], a young newbie nurse trainee, up to speed on what it takes to make an authentic re-enactment. On the Confederate side, newbie LucyGale Scruggs [Leanne Norton Heintz] struggles to understand and befriend the mysterious Cecilia Pettison [Jane Holding], a master of re-enactment whom no one can beat.
“We soon meet Ranger Wilson [Barbette Hunter], an African-American park ranger who wants to be anywhere but the year 1862 this weekend,” says Hill. “She is utterly baffled by anyone’s desire to re-enact this period of American History. Finally, we meet the Widow Beckwith [Bonnie K. Allison Gould], a plucky, no-nonsense merchant and war profiteer of Civil War knick-knacks and souvenirs who has no interest in who wins the war. She’s most morally dubious character of the bunch, a modern-day Mother Courage type.”
Katja Hill says, “Ranger Wilson catches the Widow Beckwith on Federal ground before the park is officially open, presenting her with a number of citations for violating the law. Hilarity ensues as the re-enactors pile on and fight for the Ranger’s approval, but the Ranger will have none of it. All of a sudden, at the break of dawn, the battle begins — but we’re not sure if it’s just a really great re-enactment or if we’ve somehow gone back in time. After all, the park itself is something like a mass grave.
“At the end of the show, we discover who each character is ‘in real life,’ and the characters return to their own world,” reports Hill.
Shiloh Rules director Katja Hill admits, “The challenge of directing any play with a basis in historical fact is getting the story of the battle out to the audience. The playwright has done much of this work, but it was important in our staging of it to create a sense of a larger, more violent offstage world that the cast could believe in and carry back on stage in their behavior. And because the play’s central device is a collapse of time between 2011 and 1862, we had to come up with creative technical solutions using sound, set, light and costume to move us back and forth.”
For a complete schedule of theatrical performances and related events, click http://www.theateroftheamericansouth.org/events.html.
SECOND OPINION: May 8th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/05/08/1180750/wilson-theater-festival-goes-back.html.
The Theater of the American South presents SHILOH RULES at 8 p.m. May 13, 2 p.m. May 14, 7:30 p.m. May 15, 8 p.m. May 20 and 21, 2 p.m. May 22, 8 p.m. May 27 and 28, and 7:30 p.m. May 29 in the Lauren Kennedy and Alan Campbell Theatre at Barton College, 700 Vance St. NE, Wilson, North Carolina 27893.
TICKETS: $20 ($18 students and seniors 60+).
BOX OFFICE: 252/291-4329, ext. 10, or http://www.etix.com/.
FESTIVAL SCHEDULE: http://www.theateroftheamericansouth.org/events.html.
NOTE: Complimentary tickets for the May 13th opening-night performance are available to Barton employees and students with ID.
The Play: http://www.playscripts.com/play.php3?playid=1802 (Playscripts, Inc.).
The Playwright: http://www.playscripts.com/author.php3?authorid=979 (Playscripts, Inc.) and http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2103862/ (Internet Movie Database).
Shiloh National Military Park: http://www.nps.gov/shil/index.htm (official website).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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