IndyFringe: ‘Atlanta Burning, Sherman’s Shadows’

This show is part of the 14th Annual Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival, a/k/a IndyFringe, Aug. 16-26, 2018 on Mass Ave downtown. Info, etc., at www.IndyFringe.org.

By John Lyle Belden

“I do what I must, rather than what I wish,” laments Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, a Union commander during the Civil War (in)famous for his scorched-earth March to the Sea in 1864, an effort to shorten the war (which did end the next year) by bringing its horrors to the civilian population of Georgia.

Playwright Lance Sherman Belville, a descendant of the general, presents an insight into the man’s thinking as he relates his plans to a trusted assistant and his general staff shortly before his fiery assault on Atlanta. We learn of his past relationship with Robert E. Lee (a classmate at West Point), his longing for his lost son, and his desire to not repeat what he saw as the greater tragedy of the siege of Vicksburg.

The show’s director, Lynn Lohr, plays the Major who Sherman uses as his sounding board, his “fool” to tell him what is wrong with the plans he is nevertheless determined to execute.

We also have a young Private, portrayed by Connor Buhl — who also plays a Union soldier in reenactments and at Connor Prairie. This, plus being the only player in full period uniform, makes him the most interesting and compelling character. He plays harmonica, and engages the audience without breaking character before the show, leading us in songs of the era.

The playwright plays his great-great uncle, holding and reading from the script that he (as Beville) says he is “still revising.” It’s a curious and brave choice, but he often stumbles over his own words, marring what is otherwise a highly-recommended living history lesson.

If you can ignore the papers in the playwright’s hand, or at least see them as reports or correspondence or maps in Gen. Sherman’s, sit back with some hardtack (provided) and get a new perspective on the story you may only know from a long-ago high school lesson or scene from “Gone With the Wind.” Performances are at the Indyfringe Basile (main) Stage at 719 St. Clair St., near the intersection of Mass Ave. and College.

Review: Civil War comedy works

By John Lyle Belden

NOTE: Review also appears online with The Word (www.theygayword.com).

The most entertaining lesson this Black History Month only has one February weekend of performances, the comic drama “Butler” at Indy’s Phoenix Theatre through Sunday. It is also an important insight into the struggle to bring about the end of slavery, or to at least give African Americans some long-denied dignity.

Lawyer turned Union Army General Benjamin Franklin Butler (played by Stephen Hunt, who perfectly resembles historical photos of Butler), takes command of a fortress that by a fluke of geography is the only piece of Virginia still belonging to the North during the Civil War. As he’s settling in, he receives word of escaped slaves, led by Shepard Malloy (Ramon Hutchins), who insists on speaking to the General.

The opening scene, mainly a conversation between Butler and one of his junior officers (Brandon Alstott), helps set the tone for this play. We get a feel for Butler’s gruff personality and though his agitation over seemingly small details seems eccentric, we find ourselves “astonished” at how well it sets up the dry but sharp comedy of later scenes.

Hutchins is exceptional in a very complex role. His Malloy yearns for freedom, yet his intellect and impulsiveness make him his own worst enemy in a world where people like him aren’t allowed to get in the last word. Yet in one-on-one conversations with Butler, their verbal sparring challenges each other as well as the audience, even while extracting welcome yet un-guilty laughter.

Doug Powers appears as a Confederate Major sent to fetch the escaped slaves, ironically citing the laws of the Union his state was seceding from to compel Butler to return them to his custody. It is in this situation that the Union General reverts to lawyer mode and comes up with a loophole to keep Malloy and his companions in the fort. Note this is based on true events, including the legal means by which Butler manages to hold on to the “property” of a Southern slaveowner.

If an uplifting Civil War comedy can happen, anything is possible. See for yourself Feb. 4-7. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.