Dallas — For years, theatergoers were fed a diet of deconstruction, a sort of theatrical fission that derives its energy from the splitting of recognizable forms. More recently tastes have changed to fusion. Like the world of cuisine, this approach unleashes new harmonies by combining ingredients regardless of their origins.
There’s no better place to savor that flavor right now than Second Thought Theatre.
The chef’s special: Booth, about the assassin John Wilkes Booth. It’s a mysterious history-based conspiracy caper with a side of love story all wrapped up in intricate staging garnished with musical flourishes. It’s locally sourced and available for a short time.
Don’t worry about the dollar signs. This production directed by Steven Michael Walters, who created the story with Erik Archilla, was made possible by a Donna Wilhelm Family New Works Fund TACA grant. And it shows the moment you enter Bryant Hall. Rarely do we get to see a design so fully realized outside of big budget theatres.
Set Designer Aaron Jackson has created an immersive environment for this historical assemblage to take place. The audience is perched on banks of seats around a small arena stage. Surrounding them is an elevated catwalk backed by an open work of burnt barn boards and beams. Lighting designer Aaron Johansen takes full advantage of the spaced boards and raised platforms to peek light and cast shadows accenting the wide variety of scenes. From gentle romantic wash to dramatic textured backlight, this design duo puts the audience right in the middle of the time shifting text.
Though it’s called Booth, the play is equally about Edwin Stanton, the secretary of War who takes charge in the vacuum left by Lincoln’s death. Playwright Walters’ stroke of genius in the retelling of this dark moment is to overlap the fallout of the assassination with the events that led to it. This allows him to parallel Booth’s fanaticism that elevates a kidnapping plot to murder with Stanton’s descent into draconian measures to preserve order.
But that parallel fights to emerge amongst scenes of the conspirators meetings and later interrogations, the development and dissolution of a love affair with Senator’s daughter Lucy Hale (Mikaela Krantz), Stanton’s political intrigues and, inexplicably, an acting lesson between brother Edwin (Frank Mosley) and John Wilkes.
Of the many reasons to see this show, however, one of the biggest is the way director Walters braids the beginnings and ends of the many scenes with interlocking dialogue. The cast does a fantastic job of handling the stylized scene shifting. Nothing spoils a directing tour de force like limp execution. Fortunately, the only limp here belongs to Booth and it is cleverly used to shift us between pre-assassination and post-assassination (remember that he injured his leg in the leap from the balcony). These transitions are a gleeful celebration of the fun of fitting a puzzle together, historical or otherwise, and worth the price of admission in and of themselves.
Not that the cast has only these to celebrate. The many parts of the factual narrative demand players. Heading the list of supporting standouts is R Bruce Elliott as elder statesmen Andrew Johnson and Senator Hale. Both roles capitalize on his Sam Waterston-esque impenetrable strength. One of the best scenes of the evening occurs between Booth and Hale as potential suitor opposite a disapproving father. This tense chess match is a refreshing break from the swirling plot. Two much briefer appearances deserve as much praise. Andrews Cope as Thomas T. Eckert has a heartfelt speech tendering his resignation over Stanton’s tactics and Emily Scott Banks is deer-in-headlights moving as the first American woman to face the death penalty, Mary Surratt.
There are more actors in the ensemble who serve their turn with distinction but it’s the principles of Booth and Stanton that decide the night. Montgomery Sutton looks like a photo booth photo of Booth come to life and he plays the title character with the wild eyes of unbending fervor. The production owes much to his driving energy but in the final tally it loses him our sympathy. There’s no question about what Booth did. What the audience wants to know is why. To really make history human requires the vagaries to which humans are prone.
That’s why Stan Denman’s Stanton is the more compelling character. Though he comes off as more evil, he wrestles with it and it’s that struggle that gives him the third dimension needed to take the man from the history page to the theatre stage. In a moving monologue that closes the first act, Stanton’s crisis of conscience over the body of the slain president is more Shakespearean than any of the quotes strewn about the show. It’s not the killing of Claudius that keeps us coming back to Hamlet hundreds of years later, after all. It’s Hamlet’s internal struggle to kill him that makes the role the great envy of actors.
Maybe that’s why when the show returns its focus to the assassin in the final moments of the play, he resembles the Bard’s “poor player” whose hour is over. When the sound and fury subsides, the signifying is up for debate.
Maybe that’s why 20 minutes later you’ll be hungry again. Only this time, depend on it, you’ll have a hankering for some history.